BERLIN, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Title hopefuls Bayer Leverkusen and Hamburg SV played out a 1-1 draw in the Bundesliga on Saturday, a result that will have delighted top two Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen ahead of their meeting on Sunday.
Rafael van der Vaart struck with his 10th goal of the season to give Hamburg the lead but a fine header from Manuel Friedrich in the second half earned a point for the home side.
The result left the two teams in third and fourth respectively, level on 34 points.
Bayern lead the standings on 39 points, with Werder second on 36. A win for the Bavarians in Sunday's clash at the Allianz Arena would take them six points clear at the top.
Schalke 04 could also capitalise on Sunday, when a win away to Borussia Dortmund in the big Ruhr derby would be enough to take them up to third on 35 points.
Further down the table, faltering champions VfB Stuttgart lost 3-1 at home to Hertha Berlin, a 10th defeat of the season that left them down in 10th place.
Marko Pantelic struck twice for Hertha and Raffael added a third, while Stuttgart's latest day of disappointment was capped by the sending-off of Matthieu Delpierre nine minutes from time for a second booking.
Hamburg looked odds on to get their first win in five Bundesliga games as they attacked Leverkusen from the off.
Leverkusen, missing three-quarters of their first-choice defence because of injury and suspension, nearly fell behind in the fifth minute when Van der Vaart set up Ivica Olic to shoot narrowly wide.
The home side gradually took control of the game only for defensive lapses to gift Hamburg the lead.
Piotr Trochowski sent in a harmless looking cross from the right but Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker and Friedrich stood around looking at each other rather than clearing the ball and Van der Vaart gratefully stepped in to score.
Van der Vaart had another good chance in the first half when he weakly headed at the keeper from 10 metres.
With an hour gone Leverkusen finally got the reward for their efforts going forward, Tranquillo Barnetta sending over a corner and Friedrich supplying a powerful header to beat Frank Rost.