When Werder Bremen and Schalke 04 meet on Saturday evening, they are perhaps providing a preview of what is to come in the race for a UEFA Champions League place.
Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are clearly the best and second best teams in the Bundesliga. Bayer Leverkusen, based on their performances in Champions League this season and their Bundesliga performances over the last season, are probably better than their current sixth placed standing. Borussia Mönchengladbach, based on their performances without Marco Reus, are not a top-four team if he is not playing out of his mind.
What all of that means is that these are likely the fourth and fifth best teams in Germany, based on their talent level, form, and the talent level and form of the teams around them. This is going to be one of many key matches throughout the season that determines who finishes where. Both Schalke and Werder have Champions League-level talent, but they've been wildly inconsistent this season.
With 14 goals in the Bundesliga and six goals in the UEFA Europa League, there aren't many strikers in the world in better form than Klass-Jan Huntelaar. With Real Madrid and Spain legend Raul operating behind him as some kind of odd hybrid No.10/goal poacher, a position it feels like he invented, Schalke can score goals in buckets.
Werder aren't bad in front of the net either, as Claudio Pizarro is having one of the best seasons of his career. Young Marko Arnautovic is finally reaching his potential and Markus Rosenberg is enjoying a career resurgence, giving Thomas Schaaf no shortage of options up top. Marko Marin and Aaron Hunt provide the supply, though the latter will still be suspended this week, following his straight red card against Bayern Munich.
Bremen didn't need Hunt in their 4-1 thrashing of struggling Wolfsburg last week, though that game was hardly indicative of Bremen's quality. They played well, but Wolfsburg was so poor that it wouldn't have been a legitimate reflection on any team's quality, regardless of the margin of victory. Schalke fought for victory away to Hertha Berlin last week, then followed it up with a 3-0 thrashing away to a decent Maccabi Haifa side.
Could a short turnover and lengthy travel hinder Die Königsblauen on Saturday? Doubtful. Huntelaar and Raul were among the many that did not make the trip. Benedikt Höwedes, Asuto Uchida and Jose Manuel Jurado were the only starters in that game against Maccabi Haifa who have a serious chance of cracking the starting XI on Saturday. Most of the team should be sufficiently rested.
Neither team is particularly great in wide areas, so expect quite a bit of direct play up towards the strikers, and for any short passing on the ground to happen primarily in the middle. While Marin can drift wide and get crosses in, it certainly is not his primary function. Schalke might be a threat down the wings when Jefferson Farfan comes back from injury, but he's still out after getting hurt while on international duty back in early fall.
Schalke 04 vs. Werder Bremen
Game Date/Time: Saturday, Dec. 17, 12:30 p.m. ET, 6:30 p.m. local
Venue: Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkirchen, Germany