Both sides see themselves at the top table of German football, yet both are mired in apparent crises as they prepare to meet on Saturday.
VfL Wolfsburg are without a manager and winless since the first day of the season, whilst Bayer Leverkusen have all three of their most recent domestic games, with Roger Schmidt’s position and conduct under heavy scrutiny over the past week.
Both teams are desperate for a win, but will the Wolves keep up their strong home record against the Werkself, or will Leverkusen rediscover the sort of form that helped them to beat Borussia Dortmund at the beginning of October?
Wolfsburg in relegation places but Leverkusen in crisis too
Wolfsburg have fallen into the Bundesliga’s bottom three, after losing their first match under interim coach Valerien Ismael to SV Darmstadt 98 3-1 on Saturday. Their only league win was against FC Augsburg on the opening day, however they did beat 2. Bundesliga high-fliers 1. FC Heidenheim in the DFB-Pokal on Wednesday.
And crucially, Mario Gomez has finally found his scoring feet, scoring their goals in both of those games. His failure to hit the net since his €7 million move from ACF Fiorentina (via Besiktas) had been the focus of much scrutiny.
Unlike Wolfsburg though, Leverkusen can’t fall back on the relief of a Pokal win. They were beaten on penalties by 3. Liga side Sportfreunde Lotte to compound their miserable run since the international break, where they have also been beaten by Werder Bremen and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.
Sporting director Rudi Völler referred to the result and performance in Lotte as "stupidity", whilst the long-serving Stefan Kießling went as far as describing this as "the most difficult situation since I've been with the club."
Home record against Leverkusen gives hope for Wolfsburg
Wolfsburg have an overwhelming record at home against Leverkusen, winning 15 of their 21 meetings. Leverkusen’s last victory at the Volkswagen Arena was in October 2010, when they came from 2-0 down in the last 20 minutes to win 3-2, Simon Rolfes scoring twice.
The last meeting here, also on the last Saturday in October, with the hosts winning 2-1 with Niklas Bendtner scoring what would turn out to be his last goal for Wolfsburg, and a winner from Julian Draxler. Leverkusen won the return game 3-0 as Wolfsburg’s season began to disintegrate.
In fact most recent encounters have brought plenty of goals. The games in the previous two seasons each saw at least four goals, with Wolfsburg winning 5-4 in Leverkusen the season before last. Leverkusen haven’t failed to score against the Wolves since a 2-0 defeat in 2002, a run of 28 games.
Kießling has played in the vast majority of those games, and in fact Wolfsburg are one of his favourite opponents, with the now 32-year-old scoring 11 goals against them. He has only scored more against VfB Stuttgart.
Wolfsburg keen to build on Heidenheim victory
Wolfsburg’s sporting director Klaus Allofs believes the side can build on the momentum given by the victory in the week. “A success like the one we experienced in Heidenheim could prove liberating. We are hoping to move forward now,” he said.
Ismael meanwhile believes his side must “display caution” on order to combat Leverkusen. "Bayer are particularly strong in switching the play, the put good, pacy combinations together going forward and take a fast, aggressive approach when their opponents are in possession,” he said.
"It's a difficult time for us as a team and for me as a coach – but that's not a new situation for us,” said Schmidt, who will be serving the second and final game of a touchline ban earned after his spat with Julian Nagelsmann last weekend.
He still believes that Wolfsburg are good enough to qualify for Europe this season, and also added that his team will not change their game for them. "We are at our best when we play our game in a solid and intensive way,” he said. “We'll do that tomorrow."
Injuries and suspensions for both coaches to contend with
Wolfsburg have several injury concerns going into the game. Alongside the long-term absences of Sebastian Jung, Josuha Guilavogui and Carlos Ascues, Vieirinha and Bruno Henrique have been ruled out this week. Draxler will miss the game with ankle problems, whilst Daniel Didavi is just short of a return. In addition, Jeffrey Bruma is suspended after his red card against Darmstadt.
Ismael confirmed that Ricardo Rodríguez was likely to continue filling in at centre-back, with Yannick Gerhardt occupying his usual spot at left-back. "The team needs calmness and stability right now. That’s something that Ricardo provides in the central defensive position," he said. Christian Träsch might be available after illness.
Meanwhile Leverkusen are likely to be without Lars Bender and Ömer Toprak due to injury, whilst Kevin Volland, who scored his first two goals for the club against Lotte, is suspended. Karim Bellarabi and Joel Pohjanpalo are the other absentees.
VfL Wolfsburg: Casteels; Träsch, Knoche, Rodríguez, Gerhardt; Gustavo, Seguin; Blaszczykowski, Arnold, Caligiuri; Gomez.
Bayer Leverkusen: Leno; Henrichs, Tah, Dragovic, Wendell; Brandt, Aránguiz, Kampl, Calhanoglu; Hernández, Kießling.
Quotes via RP Online, VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen.