BERLIN, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Bundesliga leaders Schalke 04 will be casting nervous glances behind them if VfB Stuttgart win the first part of a double-header at home to Hertha Berlin on Friday.
Stuttgart have climbed from fourth to second, overhauling Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen on the way, thanks to a run of four straight victories in the league.
Another win on Friday would take them to within two points of Schalke, who do not play until Sunday when they face a hard game at home to Bayer Leverkusen.
It would also confirm Stuttgart as the only candidates in Germany for a league and cup double.
While Bayern, Schalke and Werder all made early exits from the Cup, Stuttgart are looking forward to another clash at home to Hertha in the quarter-finals on Wednesday.
Coach Armin Veh has been at pains to downplay his young team's trophy chances but two victories over Hertha would make double talk hard to resist.
Stuttgart certainly looked serious candidates for the title in their 4-0 win away to Eintracht Frankfurt last Friday.
Precision passing and sharp finishing took them into a quick 2-0 lead and after Frankfurt had had a decent spell they killed the game off with a third before the first half was out.
Mario Gomez was once again on target, taking his total for the season to 13, and the league's top scorer is eager for more against Hertha in a second successive Friday night match.
'The game against Frankfurt went perfectly for us and now we want to show our fans the same sort of form,' Gomez told reporters. 'For the moment, though, we're just going step by step.'
The bad news for Stuttgart is that Pavel Pardo is suspended for Friday's game. Coach Veh will hope Fernando Meira recovers from injury in time to take his place.
Hertha, who have slipped to sixth in the table after a couple of bad results, will also be missing a key player in Arne Friedrich, who is also suspended.
It will not just be Schalke, the leaders on 49 points, who are hoping for a Hertha win on Friday.
Werder, in third place on 42 points, and Bayern, in fourth on 37, are the other sides with designs on finishing in the top three and qualifying for the Champions League.
Bayern in particular cannot afford to lose further ground when they play at home to VfL Wolfsburg on Saturday.
Werder, like Schalke, are not in action until Sunday, when they play away to Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Bayern lost 3-2 at Real Madrid in the Champions League in midweek -- a third defeat in four games since the return of Ottmar Hitzfeld -- but the players viewed that result as positive with the second leg to come at home.
'Our second goal could be a vital factor because the team showed morale,' goalkeeper and captain Oliver Kahn told reporters.
'We could build on this performance and still get something out of this season.'