By Karolos Grohmann
(Reuters) – Schalke 04 have picked the biggest stage in German football to get their Bundesliga campaign back on track as they head to in-form Borussia Dortmund on Sunday for the Ruhr valley derby.
Separated by only a few kilometres, the two clubs enjoy the fiercest rivalry in German football and Sunday’s game should also be heated as fourth-placed Schalke look for their first win in three league games to stay in touch with the top spots.
Dortmund, however, are in scintillating form under coach Thomas Tuchel, having cut champions Bayern Munich’s lead to five points with three wins in their last three games.
Tuchel has refused to talk about the derby before his team host FK Qabala in the Europa League later on Thursday, but he is expected to rotate to keep his key players fresh for Sunday.
Dortmund’s Marco Reus has scored four times in the last two games as he rediscovers his form following an injury-hit start to the season, while forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been equally impressive with 13 goals to his name in 11 Bundesliga matches so far.
Things are far from rosy at Schalke despite an initially good start to the campaign. Andre Breitenreiter’s team have stuttered in the last four matches, winning just one, to drop to fourth on 20 points, six behind their regional rivals and one off VfL Wolfsburg in third. Bayern are top on 31.
Strikers Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (two goals), Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting (one) and Franco Di Santo (none) are struggling in front of goal, while captain Benedikt Howedes is out with a broken hand.
Fellow defender Joel Matip is doubtful with a back problem while the talented Johannes Geis is suspended.
Teenager Leroy Sane has taken over scoring duties, netting four times so far, but whether that will be enough against an in-form team such as Dortmund remains to be seen.
“I will not lose faith in our strikers,” Breitenreiter said. “We will keep working towards success. When that wall comes down they will get a good run. I am convinced of that.”
There has also been turbulence off the pitch with months-long speculation over the job of sports director Horst Heldt coming to an end this week when he announced he would see out his contract until the end of the season.
“In no game are we without a chance,” said Breitenreiter. “Not against Bayern, not against Bayer Leverkusen and especially not in the derby. These are emotional games and what comes out is something no one can promise in advance.
“But we will do everything to give fans what they have expected before the season. A team that works as one unit in every game and never gives up.”
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann. Editing by Patrick Johnston)