As the 2. Bundesliga reaches its penultimate round of fixtures, the two giants of the league go head-to-head in one of the biggest games the league has seen in recent memory.
VfB Stuttgart are potentially a win away from returning to their more natural habitat of the Bundesliga, but in-form hosts Hannover 96 are striving for an immediate return as well and need to win as they look to snatch a top two berth.
One of these teams is all but guaranteed to go up, but with Eintracht Braunschweig sandwiched between them, neither side dares to slip up here.
Stuttgart on the brink but Hannover can change everything
Eintracht Braunschweig’s 3-1 win over 1. FC Union Berlin on Monday night means that the promotion race is now virtually between just the three sides. Stuttgart are three points clear at the top, with Braunschweig just ahead of bitter rivals Hannover on a better goal difference by one.
A win for Stuttgart would seal their return to the Bundesliga after just a season away, whilst they would be confirmed as champions if Braunschweig failed to beat Arminia Bielefeld. A draw would also be enough to go up if Braunschweig were to lose, although the goal difference lead of six would mean Hannover would be unlikely to overtake them in any case.
A win for Hannover could blow open the race going into the final day however, bringing them level on points with Stuttgart. Both would need just a point in their last games if Braunschweig lost, but a Braunschweig win against Bielefeld would put all level on 66 points. If Hannover lose and Braunschweig win, they could very well be staring at third place and the relegation play-off.
Best home team versus best away team
Stuttgart come into this game on a five-match winning streak, and are unbeaten in seven. Hannover can top that though, having avoided defeat for nine games running, going back to the beginning of March. Hannover came from behind to win their previous encounter back in December.
Both coaches are expecting it to be a very tough game on Sunday. “Both teams will demand everything the other has to offer,” said Stuttgart boss Hannes Wolf on Friday, however he thinks that his side “can rely on our abilities.”
He believes the trip to Hannover will be “one of the toughest away games of the season,” and indeed Hannover’s home form is the best in the league. But as his counterpart André Breitenreiter points out, no team has been better on the road than Stuttgart this season.
Breitenreiter though praised his players for being “very calm and focused, but also relaxed” during their run in the last through weeks. Nevertheless he feels they will need a boost on Sunday. He said that their fans had been “truly outstanding”, and that more than ever they would “need the twelfth man” to help them to “the three points to stay in the race.”
Schmeidebach return likely but Maxim a doubt
Hannover will still be without Felipe, Stefan Strandberg and Mike Steven Bähre, however Manuel Schmiedebach and Noah Joel Sarenren Bazee have both returned to training for Hannover after recent injuries, whilst Philipp Tschauner has also shaken off an infection.
Marvin Bakalorz would be the man expected to make way for skipper Schmiedebach if he’s restored to the starting line-up, unless Breitenreiter opts for a change of formation. Sarenren Bazee “is not an option right from the start,” he confirmed, but a cameo from the bench is possible.
Stuttgart could be without Alexandru Maxim, who has a thigh muscle problem, with Anto Grgic also a doubt. “We will have to wait until the final pre-match training session on Saturday,” confirmed Wolf on their fitness. Long-term absentees Carlos Mané and Jens Grahl remain out.
There are two ways he could go if Maxim is missing. He could bring in a conventional midfielder in the form of Matthais Zimmermann, or a more attacking option like Takana Asano, Julian Green or even Tobias Werner. One of the latter could also come in on the right in place of Florian Klein, who had come in for Asano against Aue.
Hannover 96: (4-4-2) Tschauner, Sorg, Sané, Hübner, Albornoz, Klaus, Schmeidebach, Anton, Prib; Füllkrug, Harnik.
VfB Stuttgart: (4-2-3-1) Langerak; Pavard, Baumgartl, Kaminski, Insúa; Gentner, Oforoi; Asano, Maxim, Brekalo; Terodde.
Quotes via VfB Stuttgart and Hannover 96.