The Bundesliga gets back to work – previews and predictions for Matchday 28

After what seemed like an eternity of an international break, where we learned that Germany can look average defensively versus a speedy counterattacking England team and can dominate Italy’s C squad, the Bundesliga is thankfully returning.  Let’s give a shout out to Leverkusen twitter before getting to our 10 predictions for Matchday 28!

1.The Friday night matchup looks to be a promising one between a couple of underachieving sides in Wolfsburg and Leverkusen. The glory days of last season where Wolfsburg challenged Bayern for the title and Leverkusen gathered 61 points to finish in 4th are gone this season, as just 4 points separate the 6th place Werkself from the visiting 8th place Wölfe. 15 points in the Rückrunde and an almost 4 game losing streak has made life difficult for Leverkusen fans, but the club appears to be turning things around with two close wins in their last 2 matches. Wolfsburg have collected just 12 points in the spring, despite Andre Schürrle’s hot form that saw him pick up 5 goals and the league’s player of the month award.

Injuries have decimated both of these clubs all year and remain the story, as there are a combined 14 players out or doubtful for this encounter in the BayArena, including Chicharito and Luiz Gustavo who only returned on Thursday from their international duties. At 22 years of age, Wendell will be the elder statesman of the Leverkusen defense, with the great German defensive hope, Jonathan Tah (turned 20 in February), Tin Jedvaj (20) and Benjamin Henrichs (19), who to his credit was imperious against Stuttgart. Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s nice free-kick for Turkey is a promising sign, given the Turkish star’s propensity to miss the target this season, and Julian Brandt had the game of his life against VfB just before the break. Charles Aranguiz, the 13 million summer signing from Internacional will be looking to make his season debut (!!) while Lars Bender, without a competitive game for die Werkself since October, is also fit.

Speaking of players coming off long injuries: Diego Benaglio is finally back in goal for the visitors, and Bas Dost (remember these 4 goals from last year’s 9 goal thriller?) and Naldo both were back in training per Wolfsburg’s Twitter. Vieirinha is also back and expected to start alongside the Arnold, Draxler, Schürrle trio in the attack. That’s a lot of firepower for a weakened Leverkusen defense, which is good news for all who enjoy back and forth attacking football.

The prediction: This encounter has never ended without a goal, so let’s not start now. Take the over on 3 goals and since it is still March, a Schürrle goal will be a nice bonus.

2. Thanks to a 7 game winless streak, the fairytale story of Darmstadt is now dangerously close to turning into a relegation nightmare and visitors VfB Stuttgart will look to shove SV98 further down the hole.  Despite picking up just 5 points from their last 6 games (including a 3-3 draw and the slip-up versus a decimated Leverkusen side) VfB are already on 17 Rückrunde points. They have been a juggernaut in the spring: their 21 goals lead the league, and their shots per game average is at 16, while they only trail Bayern and Dortmund in the shots on target department. They continue to devastate teams on counters – 120 is 20 more than 2nd place Leverkusen, thanks to the terror that is Filip Kostic, who has 4 goals, 4 man of the match performances and a whopping 30 chances created in the Rückrunde. Lukas Rupp has chipped in with 20 chances created to go with a pair of goals and assists, while Alexandru Maxim leads the Bundesliga with 3.14 key passes per 90 minutes (min. 500 minutes played). The team has largely done fine, despite Daniel Didavi, who just announced that he will join Wolfsburg in the summer, cooling off and only scoring 3 times (with 1 penalty) in the spring after his 7 Hinrunde goals.

So, the Swabians should score just fine, but what about the hosts? Darmstadt have 7 shots from established possession in the opposition half all season – in comparison, Hannover have 16, and Frankfurt 35, not mention Dortmund at 89 and Bayern at 119. Of course, Dirk Schuster team has never liked possession and are now under 37% for the season – a style that might actually work against a counter happy Stuttgart team. Their prowess on set pieces – 14 goals – is well-known around the league and the twin towers of  Aytac Sulu (6 goals already – all on set pieces, but all away from home) and Slobodan Rajkovic will be the main targets alongside Sandro Wagner. Lord Wagner, the scorer of 8 of the team’s last 12 looks like a good bet to score against the league’s worst defense (54 goals allowed) that will be missing two starters – Kevin Großkreutz due to injury and Georg Niedermeyer due to a red card suspension, robbing us of a much-anticipated Niedermeyer-Wagner MMA deathmatch. The defensive replacements, Toni Sunjic – averaging over 4 aerials won in his last two season in Russia and in the Bundesliga and Daniel Schwaab – with his 3 aerials won / match since joining VfB in 2013 unfortunately excel at the one thing Darmstadt do well on offense. If Marcel Heller were still alive and Darmstadt only knew how to press as well as Ingolstadt (see the 3-3 draw vs Stuttgart) and had their defense, we might pick them for a result, but in reality Stuttgart should come away with all three points despite another Lord Wagner goal! Wagner 2016!

3. There is never a good time to pay Bayern a visit, especially when you are Eintracht Frankfurt and in the midst of a coaching change and without Alex Meier, but such is life. Have I mentioned that the Eagles have scored just twice in their last 6 matches, despite beating Hannover on matchday 27?

Bayern will probably have one eye on Benfica in the Champions League on Tuesday and might rest a couple of their key players – Alonso, Vidal, Müller and Douglas Costa would be my guesses. Arjen Robben’s latest injury , with reports of the Dutchman missing up to five weeks will not hurt them against Frankfurt, as Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa have both been revelations this year. This would also seem like a good spot to give Mario Götze a chance upfront after a goal against Italy. The prediction: Bayern will win by at least 2 goals.

4. After a 5 game winless streak away from the Volksparkstadion, HSV will enjoy a trip to Hannover in ” the battle of the north”. The visitors will be boosted by Nico Müller returning from his suspension and the fact that they are playing Hannover, losers of 12 out of their last 13, but will have to do without captain Johan Djourou and the suspended Matthias Ostrzolek. It will be hard for the 96ers to find motivation after a crushing loss to Frankfurt that saw them go 10 points behind the field, while HSV are still only 4 points clear of the drop zone and will need all 3 points. Head coach Bruno Labbadia is still undecided on his choice of strikers for the match  and it is hard to blame him. Given their forward options – Josip Drmic is now out for the season, Pierre-Michel Lasogga hasn’t scored since November, Artjoms Rudnevs didn’t play in the Hinrunde and has 2 goals in the Rückrunde and Sven Schipplock is without a goal in 15 appearances – it will come down to Ilicevic, Müller and Aaron Hunt to score the all-important goal.

With only Darmstadt ahead of these two teams in the shots from established possession department, it would be unfair to expect tiki-taka and a lot of fireworks. Take HSV to win by one goal.

5. Mainz are 7th in the table with 41 points – already 1 more than all of last season -, and will look to extend their 7 game home unbeaten run against 15th place Augsburg, who are winless in their last five matches and are stuck in a relegation battle on 27 points. Despite the large gap between the two teams, the advanced stats are quite comparable – Augsburg have the edge in shots per game 14 to 10.5, danger zone shots – 142 to 122 with 93 shots from counters to 83, and shots from established possession 38 to 16. Their total shot difference (shots for – shots against ) is -58 to Mainz’s -105.

Mainz have a small edge in two stats – with 35 goals scored to Augsburg’s 33, and on shots allowed with 14.6per game to FCA’s 16. So, how are there 14 points between the two clubs? Well, here are 3 reasons:

1.Mainz’s defense appears to be better, as they have conceded just 33 times to Augsburg’s 43, as they allow 40 fewer shots against.

2. The 4% difference in save percentage (76 for Loris Karius and 71.7 for for Marwin Hitz) is significant.

3. Mainz have benefitted from a ridiculously fortunate + 4 point conversion rate percentage (12.3 for and 8.4 against), only Bayern at +5.5 and Hertha at +6.5 are better. Augsburg are at -1 (8.8 for and 9.9 against). The PDO stat that is defined on the excellent  Footballintheclouds website (PDO = Shooting% + Save%.  Basically, this is a proxy for good or bad ‘luck’. 100% is the average. Above 100% is ‘lucky’ and below is ‘unlucky’. PDO does not stand for anything. It is an online pseudonym of the person who came up with the metric. It regresses toward 100% over time and can be very erratic.  Here is an article on PDO) shows that Mainz are at 109% – or 9 points luckier than average, while Augsburg are at 98.8 or 1.2% unluckier.

Those advanced stats are not meant to discredit the excellent coaching job that Martin Schmidt has done, or the defensive wall that is the Stefan Bell, Leon Balogun with their 3 interceptions per game. Let’s not also forget about the 7 early goals of Yoshinori Muto, who sadly reinjured himself and Yunus Malli’s 10 goals and moments of brilliance, or the suspended Jairo’s timely goals and assists. In addition, Julian Baumgartlinger has scored 2 goals in his last 7 games after 0 in his first 111, and we can’t really dismiss the emergence and holdup play of Jhon Cordoba – who leads all qualified players (500+ min. played) with 4.38 fouls suffered per 90 minutes. They simply state that sometimes football is just whacky and random…..

The verdict: a 2-1 Mainz victory with Ja-Cheol Kool – 4 goals in the last month, or Alfred Finnbogason – 3 goals in the same timeframe getting the consolation goal for FCA.

6. Ingolstadt host Schalke in the last of Saturday’s early games in a match between a team of little talent versus a group of talented individuals rarely capable of playing like a team. Besides Benjamin Hübner and Marvin Matip, Pascal Groß is the only player that would fit that definition, and a lot of Bundesliga teams are probably going to jump at the chance to sign the trio over the summer. Ingolstadt, on their longest run of 5 winless matches are a strong home team with 11 points at the Audi Sportpark, where they are yet to lose in 2016. 9 goals in 6 games for FCI means that they are finally figuring out how to score with Lukas Hinterseer on a 4 game scoring streak and Moritz Hartmann getting 2 goals in the last 3 matches. Their 10 goals by forwards is already 4 more than what they achieved in the Hinrunde, with Matthew Leckie joining Hinterseer in the forwards who waited 6 months in between goals club. Paraguayan international Dario Lezcano, who got a goal against Brazil in the World Cup Qualifier and a brace in Ecuador last Thursday, has also been solid since coming over from Luzern in the winter break. So, there is a very strong chance of Ingolstadt scoring one, and it is hard to see their stalwart defense (31 goals allowed in 27 matches) to concede more than once. Although I always get the Schalke matches wrong, for no team zags more when they are expected to zig than the Royal Blues, a 1-1 draw is the prediction.

7 and 8.The Topspiel of the round is Borussia Dortmund playing hosts to the suddenly lively Werder Bremen. The BvB juggernaut has shifted into overdrive with 8 wins and 2 draws in 2016 and a 17 to 3 goal difference along with 26 out of a possible 30 points have catapulted them into the best Bundesliga team of 2016 conversation. Across all competitions that number is 13 wins and 2 draws from 15 matches and one EPL contender demolished, with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool firmly in the Dortmund crosshairs in next week’s Europa League fixture.

Werder have fought their way back to respectability with 8 points and 11 goals from their last 6, and if we discount the 5 goal thrashing against Bayern where Bremen practically gave up before even taking the field, their defense has only allowed 6 goals in 5 matches. There have even been sightings of a Felix Wiedwald save or two, I swear! Fin Bartels has netted twice and Claudio ‘ageless wonder’ Pizarro has 6 goals over that span – so his return from internationals with a back injury could not have come at a worse time for the Green-Whites. Papy Djilobodji’s suspension is also a considerable blow, and will probably help Pierre – Emerick Aubameyang stop his drought since Matchday 23.

Let’s make two predictions in fact: Dortmund will win by at least 2 goals – with Auba scoring one of them and will also have over 20 shots.  Werder’s relegation campaign should be fine with Frankfurt visiting Bayern and Augsburg away to Mainz.

9. A tasty Sunday affair between 5th place Gladbach and 3rd place Hertha is in the cards for Bundesliga fans, with the hosts looking to slice the 6 point gap to 3. Despite that infuriating loss to Schalke, the Foals are still right in the thick of the Champions League race, thanks to the Andre Schubert renaissance that brought an infusion of youth in the defense (Christensen, Elvedi) and midfield (Dahoud) and a career year from Raffael – 13 goals and 10 assists. Hertha are probably the only better story in the Bundesliga as Pál Dárdai has engineered a remarkable turnaround thanks to a backup goalie turning into the closest thing to Manuel Neuer, a young and stingy defense buoyed by the hard-running midfield of Vladimir Darida and two 31-year-old strikers combining for 21 of the team’s 37 goals.

Although, both of these outfits have been beneficiaries of some outrageous shot luck and conversion percentages (Gladbach are at 15.5%, while Hertha are on 14.5% – with a stunning 8% against!) and skeptics have raised their doubts about the repeatability of their 2015/16 performance, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and just state that there is a very good chance that we will see both of them in the Champions League next year.

Gladbach’s strong home record – 31 points from 14 games and their avoidance of draws – only 3 so far – lead us to pick them for a narrow victory over Hertha in the end that will make the home stretch even more enticing.

10. 16th place Hoffenheim host 9th place Cologne and if we just looked at the table positions there could be a good case for an away win, as Cologne have taken 17 points from their 13 matches on the road. Recent form and reality suggest otherwise: the Julian Nagelsmann led Hoffenheim are a rejuvenated team with 12 points from their last 6, while Peter Stöger’s boys have only taken 4 points (3 against Hannover) in that same span. 9 points in 10 Rückrunde matches is simply not good enough for Effzeh. Only 2 of former Hoffenheim striker Anthony Modeste’s 11 goals have come since February 1st and for a team that averages just 1 per game that has been costly. Simon Zoller – the club’s second leading scorer with 5 this season has either been injured – as he is since February- or largely ineffective since that memorable Matchday 17 win over Dortmund where he scored his 4th goal of the campaign. Leonardo Bittencourt has been one of the few positives for the Billy Goats with all of his 3 goals coming in March.

The reason why Cologne have been able to stay in the middle of the table has been their goalkeeping and defense. Germany international Jonas Hector leads all defenders with 44 key passes, and Dominic Maroh and Frederik Sörensen are both in the top 30 with over 8 defensive actions per 90 minutes and Mergim Mavraj would also qualify if he played enough minutes. Loris Karius is third among goalkeepers with a 75.7 save percentage. They will need all of that against the suddenly high-powered offense of TSV 1899, where Cologne native Mark Uth and Leicester City transfer Andrej Kramaric look like different players under Nagelsmann, bagging 7 of the team’s 11 goals in their last 6 games. With 3 assists in that period, Kevin Volland has looked better, and new U21 Germany international Nadiem Amiri appears to be getting increased playing time, while Sebastian Rudy should just pretend that the Billy Goat players are mediocre Italian internationals.

That’s right people, we are picking Hoffenheim to win!

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Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid -90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Now, he's in the USA -- and still loving it all many years later. Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany, to the point that he even started a website about it, at www.bundespremierleague.com. Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and @BundesPL