Bayern Munich's main title rivals all slipped up last weekend, leaving them more in competition with each other for European qualification places than for the German championship. Bayern continues its march at Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday, while second-place Bayer Leverkusen hosts Stuttgart on Saturday. Third-place Dortmund gets the 19th round of games underway at bottom side Eintracht Braunschweig on Friday.
Bayern Munich was 14 minutes from its first loss of the season Wednesday, down 1-0 at Stuttgart with its league-record unbeaten run on the line, before Claudio Pizarro equalized and Thiago Alcantara sealed the side's 16th victory from 18 games.
It was the manner of the Spaniard's goal that stole the headlines, a spectacular overhead kick to win the game in injury time, but it also stretched Bayern's commanding lead over Bayer Leverkusen to 13 points, with Borussia Dortmund another four behind after 18 games. Bayern hasn't lost in the league in 43 games.
At the same stage last season, Bayern led Bayer Leverkusen by nine points and Borussia Dortmund by 12. Jupp Heynckes' side went on to clinch the quickest ever Bundesliga title. His successor, Pep Guardiola, is already well ahead of his pace.
Jakub Blaszczykowski's season-ending injury - the Poland captain tore his cruciate ligament in last weekend's 2-2 draw at home with Augsburg - is just the latest serious injury blow to Borussia Dortmund's faltering Bundesliga season.
Dortmund has already had to contend with long-term injuries to defenders Lukasz Piszczek, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels and Marcell Schmelzer, as well as influential midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, while dealing with the distraction of Polish striker Robert Lewandowski's end-of-season transfer to Bayern.
German media reports suggest that Serbian attacking midfielder Milos Jojic is on the verge of signing from Partizan Belgrade, while Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg says Hertha Berlin's Colombian striker Adrian Ramos is likely to be Lewandowski's replacement in the summer.
After a troublesome season so far, Schalke's mood visibly improved last Sunday with the return of Klaas Jan Huntelaar after five months out injured.
The Dutch striker opened the scoring and his mere presence seemed to bring the best out of his teammates as they triumphed 3-0 at Hamburger SV.
Adding to the new-found sense of optimism, all the sides above dropped points - with the exception of Bayern - allowing Schalke to climb to fifth, two points off Borussia Moenchengladbach in the last Champions League qualification place.
Schalke hosts big-spending Wolfsburg, which is just a point behind and also aiming for fourth place, on Saturday.
Huntelaar, who has 50 goals in 85 games for Schalke, is back just when he's needed most.
"His presence alone does us the world of good," Schalke coach Jens Keller said.
Hamburger SV, the only Bundesliga side to have played every season, finds itself firmly in a battle against its first relegation after four defeats in succession.
"We're going down if we keep going like this," Hamburg playmaker Rafael van der Vaart said after the latest defeat to Schalke left the side in the relegation play-off place.
Hamburg fired Thorsten Fink as coach in September but has seen little to no improvement under replacement coach Bert van Marwijk.
The Dutchman's job has been complicated by a host of injuries hitting a small squad. Standout striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga (nine goals) has been ruled out for two weeks, while defender Lam Zhi Gin is also ruled out against Hoffenheim. Defender Marcell Jansen is doubtful but goalkeeper Rene Adler could return.
Last Sunday's defeat to Schalke was the sixth loss in nine home games this season for Hamburg, which has conceded 41 goals. Only Hoffenheim's record of 42 goals conceded is worse. A goalless draw is not expected on Sunday.
LEVERKUSEN RUFFLING FEATHERS
In an effort to get more fans at games, Bayer Leverkusen has taken out advertising on public transport services in the area, but this has riled football fans in nearby Wuppertal.
Since Monday, the Wuppertal suspension railway has been carrying the slogan: "Top class football: only 30 kilometres further."
Wuppertaler SV chairman Achim Weber, whose side was relegated to the fifth tier because of insolvency, was not amused.
"This Bayer-train goes right by our stadium all the time. Bayer are fishing in foreign waters," Weber told the Cologne-based Express newspaper. "We need every supporter. You don't do something like that."
Leverkusen hosts Stuttgart on Saturday, when all fans, including Wuppertal's, are welcome.