With Bayern Munich drawing on Friday, second-placed Leverkusen had the chance to creep a bit closer to table-toppers Bayern. They did precisely that with a relaxed 3-0 win over Hamburg.
Leverkusen almost got round 17, the last one before the Bundesliga's winter break, off to a bang, when Andre Schürrle hit the post in minute two.
Hamburg had recovered from a terrible start and were talking Europe before the match. But as this game showed, their defense is anything but worthy of international competition.
In minute 26, Stefan Kiessling snuck in behind the Hamburg back four to open the scoring. Artjom Rudnevs almost leveled a minute later, but his header caromed off the aluminum.
Instead, Hamburg's back four was caught napping again in minute 36. This time it was Schürrle getting past the back line. Kiessling picked him out, and Leverkusen led 2-0.
After the break, Leverkusen were content to sit back, and Hamburg proved unable to generate anything worth the name pressure. A bit of comedy decided the outcome in minute 65. Kiessling lobbed René Adler for a league best 12 goals this season. The assist came from Leverkusen keeper Bernd Leno, all the way at the other end of the pitch.
The 3-0 victory moves Leverkusen to within nine points of Bayern, who drew 1-1 with Borussia Mönchengladbach on Friday evening. But probably wisely, Leverkusen's players are talking about challenging for the title.
"We did not expect that we would be second at the winter break and be playing so well," a modest Kiessling told reporters after the match.
Meanwhile, Hamburg head into the winter break standings in no-man's land.
Frankfurt stay hot
Saturday was also kind to Eintracht Frankfurt, who came into the round a surprising fourth. And they confirmed that they're a team to be reckoned with a convincing win in Wolfsburg.
In minute 11, the visitors were already in the lead. Veteran striker Alex Meier continued his career season, heading in his 11th goal of the campaign.
Four minutes later, Wolfsburg's Josue got his marching orders after putting a boot to striker Olivier Occean where it hurts men most.
Frankfurt immediately took revenge on the ensuing free kick. The ball was hoofed up-field and Stefan Aigner volleyed it in to the middle, where Takashi Inui slammed it directly home. It was one of the goals of the season, and the resulting lead was all Frankfurt needed against the short-handed Wolves.
The 2-0 win temporarily took Frankfurt up to third in the table and capped off a fantastic first half of the season for the newly promoted team.
"I'm very satisfied, especially as I've now got vacation," Frankfurt coach Armin Veh noted cheerfully after the match.
Freiburg shock Schalke
Schalke won’t be enjoying their winter vacation after going down at home to overachievers Freiburg.
Things got off to a bright start for the hosts. In minute 20, a long pass released Lewis Holtby on the break, and he slid the ball to Jefferson Farfan, who put Schalke ahead.
The Royal Blues failed to press their advantage, however, and paid for it. Six minutes later, Jan Rosenthal leveled things with a somewhat lucky volley. And six minutes after that, Schalke defender Joel Matip utterly misplaced a pass in front of his on goal, and Jonathan Schmid staked the visitors to a 2-1 lead.
Symbolic of Schalke’s misery was last season’s top Bundesliga scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who failed to convert from around three feet in front of goal just before the break.
Schalke displayed more urgency at the start of the second half, but on the hour mark another defensive blunder - an aimless pass by Christoph Metzelder - gifted Freiburg a chance. Rosenthal said thank you and notched up his brace.
Rosenthal tried to do Schalke a favor by getting sent off with ten minutes to go. But less than sixty seconds later Huntelaar followed him to the showers with a straight red card, and the match petered out.
The 3-1 win took Freiburg up to a dizzying fifth in the table, while Schalke are in turmoil after tumbling down to seventh. The future of Coach Huub Stevens is up in the air, and Huntelaar, whose contract expires next summer, is rumored to want out during the winter break.
Frustration for strugglers
At the other end of the table, Greuther Fürth hosted Augsburg with both teams on eight points at the bottom of the table. In keeping with the context, the encounter was not one for football aesthetes.
In minute 9, Augsburg drew first blood, with Sascha Mölders heading the visitors in front. They must have felt good about their chances, given that Fürth hadn't scored in ages, and as if to underscore the hosts' offensive incompetence, Lasse Sobiech failed to put away a point-blank header just before the interval.
But in minute 68, Fürth caused jaws to drop throughout Germany by scoring their first goal in more than eight hours of play. Sobiech succeeded nodding home after some laughable Augsburg chaos in their own box.
However, any hopes of three valuable points were premature. The teams traded red cards, and the match ended 1-1, an outcome that does neither side any good. After the match, both coaches were speechless.
"I stand before you as the coach, Mike Büskens," Fürth's skipper said to a reporter. "I'm not going to tell you how the human being Mike Büskens feels."
In other action, Düsseldorf beat Hannover at home 2-1 Dani Schahin put the hosts ahead, only to see Mame Diouf equalize. But in minute 82 Ken Ilsö put in a lovely free kick to give Düsseldorf the win.
Further to the south, Mainz beat Stuttgart 3-1 despite gifting the Swabians the lead after a hilarious goalkeeping mishap by Heinz Müller. But his namesake Nicolai Müller popped in a pair of goals and Elkin Soto added a third to secure the hosts a deserved victory and moved them up into the top third of the table.
Sunday sees Hoffenheim take on Dortmund, and Bremen face off against Nuremberg.