Can Schalke knock off Gladbach and keep their European dreams alive?
If Bayern Munich were to draw Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarterfinals on Friday, the two Bundesliga giants would meet four times in the space of 17 days next month. But before thoughts fully turn to such a theoretical Klassiker overkill, the very real spectacle of a hotly contested intra-German Europa League last-16 second leg has most of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's football heartland, on the edge.
The first meeting of Borussia Monchengladbach and Schalke 04 last week attracted record TV audiences for broadcaster Sport1. The return leg should rate even higher, as the tie deliciously hangs in the balance after the 1-1 draw in Gelsenkirchen and other developments since.
The Foals, who dominated the opening 70 minutes of the encounter at the Veltins-Arena, missed a chance to decide the contest. They then crashed to an unexpected 2-1 defeat at lowly Hamburger SV on Sunday to lose even more momentum, while disquiet about the possible departure of sporting director Max Eberl to Bayern at the end of the season has not made for ideal preparation either.
Borussia are still favourites to advance but they readily acknowledge that Thursday's game is unlikely to make for a comfortable affair against a resurgent S04.
"I hope that Borussia-Park will be on fire," Eberl said. "The crowd have provided outstanding support until now. We'll need that again, in extreme form, on Thursday because it'll be a complicated task for the head, as well as for the legs. We're looking forward to it, however."
A chief source of optimism is the return of Brazilian striker Raffael -- "the soul of the team," according to Eberl. The 31-year-old has scored twelve goals in 25 games in all competitions this season despite a few injury complaints. In Borussia's unusual squad (they're the only Bundesliga team to play without an orthodox No. 9) he's the closest thing to a "real" forward that Dieter Hecking can call upon.
Without the injured Thorgan Hazard and Lars Stindl, a box-to-box midfielder turned forward, 'Gladbach were toothless at Hamburg. Stindl is not certain to recover from a muscular complaint in time either, which makes Raffael's comeback all the more important. "We need a healthy, fit Raffa upfront," said Hecking. "That's when he's great and uncontrollable."
The away goal reduces the onus to score on Hecking's men as a goalless draw would secure safe passage to the quarterfinals. Borussia haven't conceded any goals in 11 of their 39 games in all competitions; they're more than capable of locking games down but they always seem happier when playing an open game.
"We're not a team that can really play for a clean sheet," admitted keeper Yann Sommer. "We don't want to. In my view, sitting deep in the hope of somehow going through would be the wrong choice. We want to force our game onto Schalke and show a good a performance."
If the 4-2 win over the Royal Blues in the Bundesliga 12 days ago serves as a blueprint for Gladbach's ambitions -- "we like to play at full throttle, always," Stindl said -- Schalke's 3-0 win over Augsburg on Sunday provides a valuable confidence boost for Markus Weinzierl's men. The visitors also regard attack as the best form of attack on Thursday night.
"The plan is two score one or two goals," said the S04 coach. "Gladbach might have the upper hand right now but we want to get to the next round regardless."
Schalke's hopes of seizing the last chance to save their season coalesce around a change in system and the good form of striker Guido Burgstaller. The Austrian, a low-budget winter transfer from second-division 1. FC Nürnberg (€1.5 million) netted twice vs. Augsburg to take his tally to six goals in 12 games for his new club. His tireless running has made him an instant hero at the traditionally working-class side, too: the Nordkurve chanted his name long after his 84th minute substitution on Sunday.
"He's doing a great job at the moment," Schalke captain Benedikt Höwedes said of Burgstaller. "He doesn't just score goals but also works incredibly hard for the rest of the team. We made a very good transfer there."
The success of "Burgi", as teammates call him, has somewhat lessened the pressure on Weinzierl and sporting director Christian Heidel in particular, but the club's position remains precarious. Unlike Gladbach, who are in the semifinal of the DFB Pokal and could still qualify for European football through their position in the table (they're three points off in ninth place), Schalke must win the Europa League if they're to enjoy midweek action next season.
Weinzierl's unexpected switch from 3-5-2 to a flat back four for the last couple of games was an emergency measure designed to bring back some stability and by and large, it worked. Schalke's central midfield has more options out wide in possession, when the full-backs push up, and there's more balance on the whole. Neither Weinzierl, who built his career on a 4-1-4-1 system at Augsburg, nor the team seemed to have fully mastered the 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2 without the ball) formation. The change is an indirect admission of flawed planning.
None of that matters too much, though, if Schalke can indeed succeed and knock out their slightly better neighbours. Some 20 years after a famous final triumph in the old UEFA Cup against Roy Hodgson's Inter, Schalke's dream of another European trophy are not dead just yet. Thursday's neighbourly duel should make for a compelling encounter.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.