By Karolos Grohmann
BERLIN (Reuters) - Freiburg's joyous celebrations for clinching a first European spot in 12 years with a fifth place finish last season have turned into a hangover as the minnows brace for a showdown against Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund on Saturday.
Coach Christian Streich's team has struggled for both pace and imagination after five key players were snapped up by bigger clubs in the summer transfer window and find themselves mired in the relegation zone, still winless after six matches.
Two of the biggest losses were striker Max Kruse, who scored 11 goals and set up another eight last season before joining Borussia Moenchengladbach, and Congolese midfielder Cedric Makiadi, who moved north to Werder Bremen.
Also hampering the club's progress is an injury picked up earlier this month while on international duty with the Czech Republic to record signing Vladimir Darida, who joined from Viktoria Plzen but has yet to feature for Freiburg.
This lack of consistency has led to three draws and three defeats in the league, and the squandering of a two-goal lead in a 2-2 draw against Slovan Liberec in their opening Europa League Group H fixture.
"At the moment, we are not capable of lighting any fireworks," Streich said of his club's recent form.
"It is important not to have any fear. If you fail to win for some time in the Bundesliga, you develop this fear. It is about making the game fun for our players. This season we will need to fight enormous battles to survive."
The small club, still the only one to take points off the all-conquering Bayern Munich this season with a 1-1 draw, received a confidence boost on Wednesday when they reached the last 16 of the German Cup with a 2-1 win over VfB Stuttgart.
"It was by no means a liberating win for us, this is something for big teams who may get a bad result and then bounce straight back," added Streich, who led the team to the semi-finals of the same competition last season.
"We are going to Dortmund now, a huge challenge mentally to play against those players. But we will not go down without a fight, I can guarantee you that."
Freiburg are currently in 17th place, one off the bottom on three points, 13 behind their opponents on Saturday.
"We were better than in the past few games and deserved to win," said keeper Oliver Baumann, who agreed to a contract extension this week. "I really hope that our confidence stays with us and we can take it into our next game."
They will need all the confidence they can muster against the Bundesliga leaders, who had a tougher midweek Cup game than expected against second tier 1860 Munich, needing extra time before advancing 2-0.
Dortmund top the standings, level on points with Bayern, after five wins and a draw from their opening six fixtures.
Defender Marcel Schmelzer is doubtful with a muscle injury but coach Juergen Klopp is unlikely to leave any of his top players on the bench after resting several in last week's 1-1 draw at Nuremberg.
Bayern host VfL Wolfsburg on Saturday, while third-placed Bayer Leverkusen, a point behind the leaders on 15, entertain Hanover 96.
(Editing by John O'Brien)