Leverkusen aim to cut Bayern lead
Bayer Leverkusen were far from title contenders when the season started but the second-placed team on Saturday can cut the gap with Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich to six points with a win over surprise package Freiburg.
Leverkusen's coaching duo of Sami Hyypia and Sascha Lewandowski have created a hugely exciting team that has now won six of their last seven league games to firmly establish themselves as one to be reckoned with.
A win against Freiburg, who have only lost one of their last nine games to climb up to sixth place and challenge for a European spot, could see them closing the gap to Bayern, in action at VfB Stuttgart a day later.
"We have a young and small squad but with a lot of quality," Lewandowski said, with his team on 36 points and Bayern on 45.
"We know what we are capable of doing and we want to take the next step. We want to try to stay in contention for an international spot and that needs to be our aim even though we are taking the first step with this team."
Lewandowski and hard-working former Liverpool defender Hyypia, who took over late last season, have managed to absorb the retirement of Michael Ballack in the summer and give their players more freedom on the pitch.
The addition of 20-year-old defender Daniel Carvajal has also proved an overwhelming success with the Spaniard exuding much-needed calmness at the back.
Forward Stefan Kiessling may have been regularly overlooked by Germany coach Joachim Loew for a return to the national team but the 29-year-old has been in scintillating form, topping the scorers' list with 13 goals so far.
"We are certainly the team of the hour and the reason for that is because everyone takes on their responsibility and everyone works for the other players on the field," Carvajal said.
Given the club's history of failure at the very last hurdle and Bayern's current sensational form, Leverkusen are wise to keep expectations low but they still have their sights firmly on a Champions League spot.
"We want to defend our spot at the top, that is our aim. We want to continue being right there at the top spots," said sports director Rudi Voeller.
Freiburg will, however, not be a walk in the park, having built the league's second-best defence this season behind Bayern.
With 18 goals conceded in 18 games, they have let in fewer than champions Borussia Dortmund or Leverkusen for that matter, to move up to sixth on 27 points.
Freiburg coach Christian Streich, honoured this week with a regional coaching prize, is eager to play down his team's surprise run and keep his players firmly grounded.
"For us coaches it is the same as for players this season and that is to manage the praise we get so that it does not become too sweet," Streich told reporters.
"Otherwise it can quickly turn into a situation where there is no reason for praise any more."
Dortmund, in third place on 33, host Nuremberg on Friday while fellow Champions League competitors Schalke 04, in fifth, travel to relegation-threatened Augsburg on Saturday.