Dortmund will attempt to wrest a win from a resurgent Bremen squad, while Leipzig host Frankfurt in a duel between second and fourth place. On Sunday, Bayer Leverkusen host Berlin in an uphill fight from mid-table.
Matchday 17: Key Matches
Saturday, 9:30 am EST
Bremen vs Dortmund (FS1)
Dortmund kick off their Rückrunde with a trip to Bremen, but they face a stiffer challenge than Bremen’s place in the table at 15th would suggest. Bremen went undefeated in its last five matches of the Hinrunde and will be playing at nearly full strength. Dortmund, however, have to find an answer with a score of injuries and their star striker Aubameyang currently seeking glory for Gabon at the Africa Cup. Ousmane Dembele and Sokratis are questionable, and André Schürrle will start at center forward.
Player to watch: André Schürrle. Schürrle has not played a full match for Dortmund since matchday 2. This is his big chance to make a difference for Dortmund where they need him.
Saturday, 12:30 pm EST
Leipzig vs Frankfurt (FS2)
This match between 2nd and 4th place on the table (36 vs 30 pts) is significant for all the clubs at the top of the table. Leipzig ended the year on the lowest possible note with a humiliating defeat to Bayern. They will undoubtedly seek to erase that memory with a home victory to start the second half of their surprising run. Although their brilliant tactician Emil Forsberg will sit out the match, serving a three-game suspension for his red card against Philipp Lahm, Marvin Compper and Bernardo will return to the defense, and midfield dynamo Naby Keita is fit to play. Frankfurt, meanwhile, will be without both Szabolcs Huszti and Marco Fabian.
Player to watch: Naby Keita. Keita’s fitness is vital to Leipzig’s success: he has struggled with injury all break, but appears ready to start. The question then is whether he will find the amazing form that followed him throughout the first half.
Sunday, 9:30 am EST
Leverkusen vs Berlin (FS1)
Roger Schmidt has said Bayer is on thin ice (9th, 21 pts), and he’s right: Bayer have to perform up to their potential if they will have any hope of European play. The Werkself have their work cut out for them, though, as Hertha come to town: neither Kevin Volland nor Lars Bender are fit, and Stefan Kießling’s lingering hip injury may sideline him yet again. The one bright spot is the imminent return of Karim Bellarabi, who has recovered from the groin injury that caused him to miss almost the entire season thus far. Hertha have their own issues: right-wing Mitchell Weiser remains unable to play because of his back, and Salomon Kalou is supporting Cote d’Ivoire’s Africa Cup bid.
Player to watch: Karim Bellarabi. It is good for the entire Bundesliga that the lightning-fast dribbling machine Bellarabi is poised to return from injury. Leverkusen need him more than ever.
Around the Bundesliga
Saturday, 9:30 am EST
Schalke vs Ingolstadt
Schalke will have at least one striker to dispatch Ingolstadt: Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, after declining to play in the Africa Cup for Cameroon, has been cleared by FIFA to play. That could be enough to beat visiting Ingolstadt, which has had to rearrange its back three precisely because regular Marcel Tisserand is playing in the Africa Cup.
Wolfsburg vs Hamburg
When the worst home team faces the third-worst away team, you can expect fireworks...of a sort. Wolfsburg will be all too happy to trot out their new acquisition Yunus Malli in the midfield, while Hamburg have to compensate for a number of missing players, including René Adler their starting keeper. On an amusing side note, both teams have acknowledged sending spies to each other’s winter training camp!
Augsburg vs Hoffenheim (FS2)
A reinvigorated Augsburg host undefeated Hoffenheim in what might be an interesting defensively oriented match. Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann will have to replace right-back Pavel Kaderabek, but future Bayern player Niklas Süle appears to have overcome a calf issue.
Darmstadt vs Gladbach
With new coach Thorsten Frings at the helm, Darmstadt face the gargantuan task of saving themselves from relegation despite a goal differential of -19 (11:30). Reports from training have been upbeat, and Captain Sulu is optimistic, but Gladbach under new coach Dieter Hecking (formerly of Wolfsburg) will be a tough trial.
Mainz vs Köln (FS2)
This match looks like Köln’s to win, as Mainz must somehow replace their star midfielder Yunus Malli, who was sold to Wolfsburg over the break. Mainz moreover will miss their best striker, Jhon Cordoba (suspended). Look for Köln’s Anthony Modeste to make life difficult for them.