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Bundesliga Matchday 18 Preview and Open Thread

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The Rückrunde begins... officially this time.

AS Monaco FC v Bayer 04 Leverkusen - UEFA Champions League Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

We might all be watching Bayern Munich demolish Werder Bremen, but if you are blessed with a second screen and Fox Soccer Plus, keep an eye glued to what promises to be a great clash between two of Germany’s most exciting coaches and two extremely talented teams: Leipzig and Hoffenheim.

Matchday 18: Key Matches

Saturday, 9:30 am EST

Leipzig vs Hoffenheim

The most significant match of the round is relegated to Fox Soccer Plus this weekend, as second-place Leipzig (39 points) host third-place, and still undefeated, Hoffenheim (31 points). Leipzig will still be without the brilliant orchestrating of the suspended Emil Forsberg, but that hardly has slowed them down, as they demolished Frankfurt last weekend. Julian Nagelmann’s Hoffenheim meanwhile appears to be returning to full strength. Only Andrej Kramaric is uncertain.

Player to watch: Naby Keita. I never get tired of watching Keita. Keita put in another outstanding performance against Frankfurt. Look for him to make life difficult for Bayern's latest signings, Rudy and Süle.

Saturday, 12:30 pm EST

Leverkusen vs Gladbach (FS2)

The Saturday matinee features two underperforming clubs that are both desperate to climb in the table. Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen celebrated a resounding 3-1 victory over Hertha last weekend and is the favorite heading into this match. Leverkusen may be even stronger now, as captain Lars Bender and striker Kevin Volland are anticipated to return. Stefan Kießling, sidelined last weekend by a persistent hip injury, also practiced with the team. With Karim Bellarabi now back in the squad, Leverkusen are looking more like their (good) selves again. Gladbach disappointed last week, as they drew 0-0 with last-place Darmstadt, so Hecking may make changes. American Fabian Johnson resumed practice with the team, but it remains to be seen whether he starts.

Player to watch: Hakan Calhanoglu. To say Calhanoglu is red-hot would be an understatement. He has simply been dominant, and he'll be the key to Leverkusen's plans to dismantle Gladbach.

Sunday, 11:30 am EST

Mainz vs Dortmund

VfL Wolfsburg v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Ronny Hartmann/Getty Images For MAN

Mainz bravely held off Köln last week in a 0-0 stalemate, but now they face a far more dangerous opponent in Dortmund (4th, 30 points). While Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang returns to the starting lineup after exiting the Africa Cup with Gabon, Mainz’s key striker Jhon Cordoba remains suspended. Mainz also remains without a real replacement for Yunus Malli. Dortmund will no doubt press Mainz mercilessly on the attack, with Aubameyang supported by a healthy Marco Reus and Ousmane Dembele – with André Schürrle and Emre Mor ready to come off the bench. As if that were not enough, first-choice goalkeeper Roman Bürki will also return to the starting XI, pushing the aging Weidenfeller back to the bench.

Player to watch: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Auba is back, and he's mad. The Africa Cup did not go his way; Mainz may have to pay for it.

Around the Bundesliga

Friday, 2:30 pm EST

Schalke vs Frankfurt (FS2)
Schalke continue their effort to climb up the table, while Frankfurt struggle not to fall. Frankfurt may be in serious injury trouble with no reinforcements coming. Among several other problems, star midfielder Marco Fabian remains sidelined with a hip injury, Szabolcs Huszti is out with an irritated Achilles tendon, and goalie Hradecky is now suspended. Things look good meanwhile for Schalke: Nabil Bentaleb has returned from the Africa Cup, and Daniel Caligiuri has just been bought from Wolfsburg, providing some much-needed offensive support.

Saturday, 9:30 am EST

VfL Wolfsburg v Hamburger SV - Bundesliga Photo by Ronny Hartmann/Getty Images For MAN

Wolfsburg vs Augsburg
The Wolves hope to ride last week’s success against Hamburg to a new victory against the defense-oriented Fuggerstaedter. Wolfsburg's new signing Paul-Georges Ntep has made quite an impression. Augsburg, coming of a 2-0 loss to Hoffenheim, will have to replace Konstantinos Stafylidis, who picked up his fifth yellow card last week for diving, and potentially three other players who caught the flu, including captain Paul Verhaegh.

Ingolstadt vs Hamburg
This clash of the pygmies pits 16th and 17th place against one another in a battle that will see neither one exit the relegation zone. As if things couldn’t get worse for Hamburg, starting goalkeeper René Adler remains sidelined and arguably their best player, Nicolai Müller, is now “more than questionable.” Ingolstadt have moreover been reinforced by the Weißwurst and Brez’n with which Karl-Heinz Rummenigge regaled the entire team and staff this past week.

Darmstadt vs Köln
Köln will look to make up for drawing with Mainz last weekend by preying on last-placed Darmstadt. Anthony Modeste in particular needs to return to the blazing hot form he displayed early on in the season. Continuing on his mission impossible for Darmstadt, new coach Thorsten Frings will throw everything he has at Köln to claw points from them. The Lilies battled Gladbach to a draw last weekend, so anything is possible.

Sunday, 9:30 am EST

Freiburg vs Hertha
As we all saw last weekend, Freiburg are no slouches. Now they face a team more of their own caliber. They will do so, however, unfortunately without defender Pascal Stenzel, who will be out for six weeks after suffering a separated shoulder against Bayern. Hertha meanwhile just has not been the same since losing Mitchell Weiser weeks ago. Weiser remains injured, but at least Salomon Kalou should be back and ready to play, now that Ivory Coast has been knocked out of the Africa Cup.