Bayer Leverkusen vs. Borussia Dortmund
Friday, 2:30 PM, TV: ESPN Deportes, ESPN3.com
What a way to kick off the second half of the Bundesliga season -- first against third in a match with massive title implications. Leverkusen endured an inconsistent start to the season and are ten points behind the leaders Dortmund, who were almost out of sight by the end of the first half of the campaign. Defeat on Matchday 17 away to Frankfurt was BVB's first loss on their travels and first since the opening week, when Leverkusen took all three points from the Westfalenstadion thanks to a pair of first-half goals. The hosts will be buoyed by the memory of that victory, Stefan Kießling's return from injury, and Patrick Helmes finding some form in front of goal. Unfortunately for Leverkusen, their defending has gotten quite a bit worse as their attack has improved; they've kept just one clean sheet in their last seven matches. BVB seemed to lose a bit of momentum in the closing weeks of the first half, but should be fresh and ready for this big test -- victory would put them thirteen points clear and nearly secure the title, while defeat could show other clubs that they are at the beginning of a spectacular collapse.
Werder Bremen vs. Hoffenheim
Saturday, 9:30 AM
Both of these sides enjoyed an uneven first half of the season; Bremen crashed out of the Champions League and Pokal while struggling mightily in the Bundesliga, while Hoffenheim started the season with promise but were unable to sustain a title challenge and drew their last four league matches of 2010. Ralf Rangnick has left as the Hoffenheim manager, though it looked like Werder were the more likely to change their coach a few months ago -- even Bremen legend Thomas Schaaf is not unsackable. Neither side has found any sort of consistency, but both have plenty to play for here. For the hosts, they need to start picking up points quickly or they'll find themselves involved in the relegation battle not far below them. Hoffenheim still have a chance of playing in Europe this season, but there's plenty of competition near the top of the table, and they'll need to improve their away form to make a run for the Europa League places.
Nürnberg vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach
Saturday, 9:30 AM
'Gladbach are awful and are going down, so there's no need to discuss them. Nürnberg had a decent first half, although their form dipped a bit towards the end before they defeated Hannover 3-1 in their last game of 2010. They are definitely too good to go down, but are unlikely to make a run for Europe unless they start scoring a lot more and improve on their travels. Their home record is pretty strong and they are clear favourites here.
Wolfsburg vs. Bayern Munich
Saturday, 9:30 AM, TV: GOL TV
After several years of speculation, Edin Dzeko has finally departed the Volkswagen Arena, leaving for Manchester City. Meanwhile, Steve McClaren's job is still on the line after a very poor first half of the season ended with die Wölfe being dumped out of the DFB Pokal 3-1 at home by Energie Cottbus of the 2.Bundesliga. Bayern, by contrast, seem to have weathered their storm and are ready to attack the second half of the season with renewed energy. Luis Gustavo came in from Hoffenheim very early in the transfer window, and both Arjen Robben and Holger Badstuber have returned from injuries, giving Louis van Gaal plenty of options to choose from for this important away trip. The Bavarians haven't been at their best on the road this season, but will be favourites here as Wolfsburg begin adjusting to life after Dzeko.
St. Pauli vs. Freiburg
Saturday, 9:30 AM
As ridiculous as it seems now, at the beginning of the season many (including this correspondent) thought this was going to be a relegation six-pointer. As the season has gone on, we've seen that Freiburg have found themselves a top quality striker in Papiss Cissé and good enough defending to translate his prolific scoring into points. St. Pauli haven't been convincing and have endured a few thrashings, but are two points above the drop zone despite having the worst attack in the league. Simply, there are worse teams below them. This won't be an easy game for Freiburg, but St. Pauli don't create many chances and they have a poor record at home.
Stuttgart vs. Mainz 05
Saturday, 9:30 AM
Stuttgart certainly can score when given the opportunities -- they notched up six goals in their last two games (both against Bayern Munich) to close out 2010. Their problem, though, was that they conceded eleven in the same two matches, losing both. Now out of the DFB-Pokal (but still in Europe), Stuttgart are in serious trouble in the league as well. They picked up just twelve points in the first half of the season and are tied for the second-worst defence in the league (it really should be tied for the worst -- 'Gladbach should have been relegated in October). Mainz started the season brilliantly, but have been far from consistent since late October, and have been conceding far too many goals for a side in the hunt for a European place. The visitors will fancy themselves here in what will be a big test for Bruno Labbadia as the Stuttgart coach has now had several weeks to impress his methods upon the players.
Schalke 04 vs. Hamburg SV
Saturday, 12:30 PM, TV: ESPN3.com
There is a beautiful irony about this game -- Schalke started the season terribly, then recovered, while Hamburg started strong and then dropped off of the pace. Now, however, they are separated by just two points in the table. The home side built up a bit of momentum in the final weeks of 2010, winning their last five matches in all competitions before the winter break. By contrast, Hamburg managed just two wins from their last six games, and have slipped to ninth. Schalke have momentum and a strong home record, so they should be favourites here.
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Hannover 96
Sunday, 9:30 AM
Frankfurt and Hannover have both been performing above expectations this season, taking the places of underachieving sides like Bremen and Stuttgart in the race for Europe. Frankfurt inflicted just the second defeat on leaders Dortmund this season to close out their Bundesliga programme for 2010, but were knocked out of the DFB-Pokal by Alemania Aachen on penalties just a few days later. Hannover had briefly moved into third on Matchday 16, but defeat against Nürnberg the following week left them in fourth at year's end, two points behind Leverkusen in third. The visitors don't score much on their travels, but will take heart from the return of Didier Ya Konan, who missed their last game of 2010 after undergoing knee surgery.
Kaiserslautern vs. Cologne
Sunday, 11:30 AM, TV: GOL TV (tape delay)
Unfortunately, this is far from the best way to close out the weekend, at least in terms of the quality of the sides involved. 'Lautern haven't been particularly convincing this season, but they've piled up enough points to be six clear of the relegation play-off place, where Cologne find themselves midway through the season. The visitors have a miserable away record (four points from twenty-seven) and will have a difficult time against one of the better home defences in the Bundesliga.