The Bundesliga returns this weekend after the winter break and the race for the title and the battle against relegation will both hot up. Matchday 17 has some intriguing games and here we bring you five talking points ahead of the weekend action.
1- How will Leverkusen cope without their African Cup of Nations quartet?
Leverkusen were without doubt the team of the Hinrunde as they went unbeaten and topped the table ahead of Bayern Munich. The improvements under Xabi Alonso last season have continued apace and the Werkself have emerged as genuine contenders to finally dethrone Bayern as Bundesliga champions.
However, the largely settled first XI that Alonso has selected in the first half of the season will see some enforced changes with four players called up to play for their country at the African Cup of Nations. Both defensive pillars Odilon Kossounou and Edmond Tapsoba will be missing as will leading scorer Victor Boniface (although he is now injured and looks set to miss out for even longer). Amine Adli will also be unavailable.
The question arises as to how well the Werkself can cope with these key absentees and how it will affect their form and rhythm at the start of the Rückrunde.
2- Will Harry Kane continue to blaze the goal trail?
That Harry Kane would score goals for Bayern Munich following his arrival from Tottenham was never in doubt, but the number of goals he has plundered in the first half of the season has come as a surprise.
The English captain hit an outstanding 21 goals in his 15 appearances putting him on course to beat the season goal scoring record of 41 set by Robert Lewandowski in 2020-21. Nobody thought it was possible for Gerd Müller’s record of 40 to be beaten, but it was. Can Kane really keep up this level of scoring and outshine both Lewandowski and der Bomber?
3- Can Timo Schultz get off to a winning start at Köln?
If ever a club needed a positive reaction and an upturn in fortunes in a coach’s first game in charge, then Köln would be one such club. The Hinrunde was a massive disappointment and the dire results led to the difficult decision to part company with the popular Steffen Baumgart.
Timo Schultz is the man the Billy Goats have turned to and with the club only off the bottom of the table on goal difference a win to open the New Year at home to Heidenheim would give them the boost they need to start their potential climb out of danger. The longer the results fail to materialise, the more worrying it will get for Köln.
4- Will we see a return of the ‘old’ Union Berlin?
Like Köln, the Hinrunde was an absolute nightmare for Union Berlin and they desperately need a new start in the New Year. Having miraculously qualified for the Champions League last season, the new campaign turned very sour for die Eisernen with an abysmal run of nine successive league defeats.
The emotional decision to part ways with legendary coach Urs Fischer did put an end to the slide with new coach Nenad Bejelica securing two wins. However, Union need a good start to 2024, but face a tricky away match on matchday 17 with a trip to face Freiburg. Which face of Union Berlin will we see this weekend?
5- Can Borussia start their Rückrunde recovery at Darmstadt?
Dortmund’s serious challenge for the Meisterschale last season was ignited by a very good Rückrunde, which saw them win eight matches on the bounce to emerge as genuine title contenders after finishing the Hinrunde off the pace. A repeat of that is going to be necessary at the start of this year, if BVB are to kick-start their season.
The Schwarzgelben finished the Hinrunde in fifth place and are a full fifteen points behind current leaders Bayer Leverkusen. Pressure is mounting on coach Edin Terzic and Dortmund really cannot afford a sluggish start if they want to make an impression on the top four and not attract further negative attention.
You would think that a trip to bottom side Darmstadt would offer them the perfect opportunity to start with a win, but then the struggling Lilien could very well be a potential banana skin for BVB in their first game back.