Matchday 19 delivers up a Rheinderby at the Bay Arena between the Werkself and the Foals with Leverkusen still maintaining their unbeaten run this season and holding onto top spot in the Bundesliga table.
The big question going into the New Year was whether Leverkusen would be able to cope with the loss of four key players at the African Cup of Nations and whether they could maintain their extraordinary run. They have answered that question in the affirmative with two wins to open 2024- albeit with both victories coming courtesy of late winners.
Bayer largely dominated against Augsburg, but found it very difficult to break down the stubborn Fuggerstädter before Exequiel Palacios’ 94th minute strike finally saw them take the three points. Against Leipzig last weekend they showed great character to twice come from behind before hitting a 91st minute winner via Piero Hincapie.
While the six points are very pleasing, coach Xabi Alonso will be more impressed with the determination and character his charges have shown and their belief in the system has borne fruit in both matches thus far this year.
The 3-0 win achieved over the Foals on matchday 2 earlier this season will give Leverkusen a psychological advantage although they will need to be on their toes on Saturday with both points and local pride at stake. The next two games see Bayer take on Stuttgart and Bayern Munich, but they cannot afford to look beyond the visit of Mönchengladbach this weekend.
Gladbach began the year brightly with a surprise 3-1 win over Stuttgart, but then failed to build upon that last weekend when giving up a winning position and losing at home to Augsburg. They find themselves in the bottom half of the table and will desperately want to claw their way up to a more respectable position.
Gerardo Seoane will return to his former club for the first time since his sacking back in September of last year. He will of course have a point to prove (especially after the home derby loss) and with an eye on the fact that the past two seasons have seen Gladbach sack their coach for finishing tenth (they are currently twelfth).
With selection issues increasing for Leverkusen coach Alonso, this could be an ideal time to take advantage, although form would indicate that the home side remain clear favourites. Gladbach have only one away win to their name thus far this season, but the scalp of league leaders Leverkusen in the Derby is quite the motivation for them this weekend.
Xabi Alonso remains without the services of Odilon Kossounou, Edmond Tapsoba and Nathan Tella, who remain at the African Cup of Nations, while Victor Boniface is injured. He now has the added woe of Jonathan Tah’s suspension and Exequiel Palacios’ injury to contend with.
Robert Andrich should drop into the centre of the back three with Gustavo Puerta lining up alongside Granit Xhaka in midfield. The trainer does have the option of switching to a 4-2-3-1 should he wish to tinker with his trusted formation.
Possible line-up: Hradecky – Stanisic, Andrich, Hincapie – Frimpong, Puerta, G. Xhaka, Grimaldo – Hofmann, Schick, Wirtz
Ko Itakura is away on international duty with Japan at the Asian Cup in Qatar, while striker Tomas Cvancara remains on the sidelines with injury. Rocco Reitz is a slight doubt for the game and Christoph Kramer would seem the likely replacement should he not make it. Gerardo Seoane could be tempted to match Leverkusen’s formation and go with a back three.
Possible line-up: Nicolas – Scally, Elvedi, Friedrich – Weigl – Honorat, Koné, Reitz, Netz – Plea – Jordan
What they’re saying:
Xabi Alonso: “We are happy to be back at home playing in our Bay Arena, with our fans behind us. After the game against Leipzig we have to be ready for the next game. We want to put a good performance on the pitch.
“We didn’t win in Augsburg and Leipzig through luck, we fought until the end and believed in ourselves. We played good football in the second half in Leipzig. Our goal is not to win in the last minute, but to perform well throughout the game. We know Gladbach and Gladbach knows us. We expect a strong opponent and a coach who knows the club well. Gerardo Seoane deserves a warm welcome to the Bay Arena.”
Gerardo Seoane: “We’ve got two difficult games ahead of us, but we’re facing up to these challenges and will try to counter them. We’ll need a lot of things to go in our favour on the day, but it’s possible to win points against these opponents. It’ll have to be a top performance from our side and a slightly less good one from the opposing side. Of course I’m looking forward to returning to Leverkusen. I had a great time there and I’m thankful that the club gave me that chance. That was a long time ago now though. The focus is on the sporting task ahead of us there at the weekend.
“No opponent has managed to beat Borussia so far – and there are good reasons for that. Leverkusen play very consistent football across every phase of the game. They have great individuals, but equally they are an outstanding unit who have been at their best so far this Bundesliga season. They are always very hungry and believe in themselves until the final whistle.
“It’ll be very difficult to threaten Leverkusen over the whole 90 minutes. I’m guessing that they’ll threaten us instead. We’ll have to close the spaces and defend with discipline. We’ll also have to counter quickly after winning the ball and make good decisions.”
20/01/24 RB Leipzig (a) 2-3 W (Bundesliga)
13/01/24 Augsburg (a) 0-1 W (Bundesliga)
20/12/23 VfL Bochum (h) 4-0 W (Bundesliga)
17/12/23 Eintracht Frankfurt (h) 3-0 W (Bundesliga)
14/12/23 Molde FK (h) 5-1 W (Europa League)
21/01/24 Augsburg (h) 1-2 L (Bundesliga)
14/01/24 VfB Stuttgart (h) 3-1 W (Bundesliga)
20/12/23 Eintracht Frankfurt (a) 2-1 L (Bundesliga)
15/12/23 Werder Bremen (h) 2-2 D (Bundesliga)
09/12/23 Union Berlin (a) 3-1 L (Bundesliga)
The corresponding fixture at the Bay Arena last season took place on the penultimate matchday of the season and proved an entertaining affair. The home side took a 2-0 first half lead through goals from Amine Adli and Kerem Demirbay in the opening twenty minutes.
Leverkusen continued to control the game until a defensive howler from Mitchel Bakker allowed Jonas Hofmann to score just before the hour mark and a second defensive blunder then allowed Lars Stindl to equalise in the 90th minute after another poor backpass to Lukas Hradecky. To make matters worse for the Werkself, Piero Hincapie was shown an injury time red card for a poor challenge on Julian Weigl.
Players to watch:
The match will see both sides looking to their young talismans for inspiration. For Leverkusen Florian Wirtz will be the key man in a creative sense and he is the player with the ability to prise open defences and supply the killer pass. He has five goals and seven assists already this season and what better place to add to those than in a home derby against Gladbach.
The Foals have their own home-grown talent, who is really coming to the fore and becoming a key man for them. Rocco Reitz needed a loan spell in Belgium with Saint Truiden to really hone his skills, but Gladbach are now reaping the benefits. Four goals and two assists already this season and how he plays will have a huge bearing on how the visitors fare this weekend.