Bundesliga Matchday 18: European contenders chase imperious Bayern
The Bundesliga returns from its winter break with Bayern Munich in complete control but things are far less clear-cut in the race for Europe.
Every team in the top half of the table will believe they have a chance of mounting a challenge for the Champions League places — setting up a potentially scintillating second half of the season.
Eintracht Frankfurt will close the gap on opponents Borussia Dortmund to just four points if they can emerge victorious from Saturday’s meeting, while surprise package Union Berlin would boost their European credentials with a win at Bayer Leverkusen.
Elsewhere, RB Leipzig will hope to get their campaign back on track against Mainz and Stuttgart travel to struggling Greuther Furth.
Game of the week: Eintracht Frankfurt vs Borussia Dortmund (Saturday, 5.30pm)
Europe’s big clubs will have half an eye on this game with in-demand striker Erling Haaland set to take centre stage.
The visitors could be 12 points behind leaders Bayern by kick-off — but coach Marco Rose will hope Haaland's goals in the second half of the season will help them comfortably secure a top-four berth.
BVB side face a tough task at Frankfurt, who are unbeaten in their last seven home league games against them — their longest ongoing home unbeaten run against a current Bundesliga side.
Four of Dortmund's five losses this season have come away from home, while 10 points from eight away games is their lowest points return after that many matches on the road since the 2016-17 season.
A more positive omen for the away side could be the form of Julian Brandt, who has found the net three times in his last four Bundesliga matches. That is as many as he scored in each of his first two Bundesliga seasons for Dortmund.
Here are the other big games to watch this weekend…
Bayern Munich vs Borussia Monchengladbach (Friday, 7.30pm)
With their comprehensive lead at the top of the table, Bayern are already overwhelming favourites to win their 10th consecutive Bundesliga title.
Julian Nagelsmann's side have now scored in each of their past 64 league games and a goal against Monchengladbach would see them equal the record they set themselves between 2012 and 2014.
The free-scoring hosts scored 56 league goals before the winter break, another Bundesliga record.
The league's leading marksman Robert Lewandowski also ended the first half of the season with a milestone of his own — scoring 43 times to break Gerd Muller's long-standing mark for goals in a calendar year.
Monchengladbach are suffering their worst campaign since the 2016-17 season and have picked up just one league win on the road this term.
They will be buoyed by their most recent encounter with the German champions — a remarkable 5-0 DFB-Pokal win in October.
RB Leipzig vs Mainz (Saturday, 2.30pm)
It has been a difficult campaign for RB Leipzig so far and they currently sit two points behind Saturday’s opponents Mainz in the table.
They do have one of the standout players in the league this term in Christopher Nkunku — he has contributed an impressive 15 goals across all competitions.
The hosts will be hoping new manager Domenico Tedesco can turn things around and help them climb into the European places.
They will be keen to kick-start that ascent by beating a Mainz side who have won their last two Bundesliga games against RB Leipzig having picked up three points in just one of their previous nine encounters (two draws, six defeats).
Striker Jonathan Burkardt will be pivotal to Mainz’s fortunes in this one — he is level with Nkunku on seven league goals for the season.
Bayer Leverkusen vs Union Berlin (Saturday, 2.30pm)
Only Lewandowski has more Bundesliga goals (19) than the 16 scored by Leverkusen’s Patrik Schick so far this season.
The Czech striker’s form has helped fire his side into fourth but things could not be much tighter in the upper echelons of the table — seventh-placed Union are just a point behind them.
The visitors will be without star striker Taiwo Awoniyi, who is with the Nigeria squad for the Africa Cup of Nations.
They still have Max Kruse, who scored his 14th Bundesliga goal for the club in their previous fixture to draw level with Awoniyi as their record scorer in the top flight.
Each of Kruse’s last four goal involvements (two goals, two assists) have come in away matches which bodes well for the visitors' chances on Saturday.
Greuther Furth vs Stuttgart (Saturday, 2.30pm)
Rooted at the bottom of the table, Greuther have only won one of their 17 games so far this term.
So Stuttgart will see this fixture as an opportunity to move out of the relegation play-off spot, and potentially climb to 13th with the right set of results elsewhere.
Only Tasmania Berlin in the 1965-66 season had fewer points after 17 Bundesliga games (four) than Furth’s five this season.
But one positive for the home side is that they have won four of those five points in their last three games.
They also kept two clean sheets in those encounters having failed to do so in the first 15.
The weekend’s other games
Freiburg vs Arminia Bielefeld (Saturday, 2.30pm)
Hoffenheim vs Augsburg (Saturday, 2.30pm)
Hertha Berlin vs Koln (Sunday, 2.30pm)
Bochum vs Wolfsburg (Sunday, 4.30pm)
Follow each game with our unbeatable live scores service. Simply tap the Scores tab on the web or download the LiveScore app from the App Store for iOS devices or for Android.