The second half of the 2015-16 Bundesliga campaign kicks off on Friday as Hamburg host league leaders Bayern Munich at the Volksparkstadion. Nine places and 24 points separate the two contestants in the table, but form is of little consideration following a break of just under five weeks.
Bayern played just one warm-up friendly match, Saturday's friendly against Karlsruhe. With fatigue and injuries having taken their toll on the club's post-winter break performance over the last few years, the German champions have kept their workload light this January.
As a result of their lack of match practice, Bayern looked sluggish and lost the game 2-1. They'll need a quick turnaround if they are to beat Hamburg.
On the bright side, Bayern welcome several key players back into the fray as they begin the second half of the campaign. Among others, wing duo Douglas Costa and Arjen Robben will be back in the running for starting spots, a troubling reality for the Hamburg defense.
Hamburg were more active with test matches, taking on Young Boys, Erfurt and Ajax. But the northern side didn't manage to build confidence heading into the second half of the season—they lost all three games, a cause for concern.
Nonetheless, the management at HSV was convinced enough in their team's success to extend Bruno Labbadia's contract last week, and the trainer will apparently stay at the Volksparkstadion for the foreseeable future.
Form during friendly matches will prove immaterial once the league resumes, though, and the side that settles back into competitive play will likely have the upper hand on Friday.
Date: Friday, January 22
Time: 7:30 p.m. GMT / 2:30 p.m. ET / 8:30 p.m. local time
Venue: Volksparkstadion, Hamburg
TV Info: Fox Sports 1 (U.S. only), BT Sport 2 (UK only)
Live Stream: Fox Soccer 2Go (U.S. only), Not available (UK only)
|Young Boys: Loss||Karlsruhe: Loss|
|Erfurt: Loss||Hannover: Win|
|Ajax: Loss||Darmstadt: Win|
|Augsburg: Loss||Ingolstadt: Win|
|Wolfsburg: Draw||Dinamo Zagreb: Win|
Kicker's Sebastian Wolff reported on Tuesday that Emir Spahic was set to miss out on Friday's action; the defender will be replaced by Cleber Reis. As well, the report cited trainer Labbadia confirming that Pierre-Michel Lasogga was back in contention for a starting role.
Albin Ekdal, Gojko Kacar and Gideon Jung are all injured, leaving the trainer to decide whether to use an inexperienced central midfielder like 18-year-old Finn Porath or a defender like Dennis Diekmeier alongside Lewis Holtby in midfield.
Possible Hamburg starting XI: Adler; Sakai, Cleber, Djourou, Ostrzolek; Diekmeier, Holtby; Muller, Hunt, Ilicevic; Lasogga.
Rafinha sustained a serious knee contusion during the friendly loss to Karlsruhe and is a doubt for the Bundesliga restart. Long-term casualties Mario Gotze, Mehdi Benatia and Franck Ribery are sure to miss out on the game, with all three more likely to return no sooner than February.
Possible Bayern Munich starting XI: Neuer; Lahm, Martinez, Boateng, Alaba; Vidal, Alonso; Robben, Muller, Costa; Lewandowski.
Players to Watch
For Hamburg, Holtby and Lasogga were perhaps the most in-form players heading into the winter break.
The pair have plenty of quality to make the difference, but arguably the most important player will be the man between the posts: Rene Adler. The 31-year-old experienced a resurgence of form during the fall and, by some accounts, was the Bundesliga's best goalkeeper.
In their first game back from injury, Robben, Costa and David Alaba will be worth a closer look for Bayern. If they aren't at their best, one can expect Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller to pick up the slack.
Lewis Holtby vs. Xabi Alonso
After a few years in the dark, Holtby seems to have rediscovered some of the class that once made him one of Germany's brightest prospects.
The 25-year-old was the architect of Dortmund's demise in matchday 13, and he carried a strong run of form into the winter break. His contribution in midfield will be key for HSV's hopes of starting 2016 well.
Opposite Holtby will be Xabi Alonso, the player Bayern will rely upon to distribute the ball from midfield to attack, in areas central and wide.
The veteran is now 34 years old, but despite his advanced age, has played consistently at a high level this season. In fact, he's played so well that Bayern gave him a contract extension until 2017 in December.
Gotoku Sakai vs. Douglas Costa
Gotoku Sakai appears to have secured his starting role ahead of Diekmeier, but the Japanese right-back will have to be careful to avoid embarrassment against a Bayern side that have been absolutely devastating against Hamburg in recent years.
Sakai has perhaps the toughest duty in taking on Costa, Bayern's best playmaker of the season thus far.
Costa was Bayern's surprise package of the first round. His talent was well known when he arrived in Munich, but the fact that he became such a key player in such little time is extraordinary.
The Brazilian was simply unstoppable at times, even from his Bundesliga debut. That was the 5-0 win against Hamburg in August, in which he scored and assisted a goal apiece.
Odds (courtesy of Odds Shark)