All eyes will be on the Bay Arena for the late game on Saturday as unbeaten league leaders Bayer Leverkusen host reigning and perennial champions Bayern Munich in what could prove to be a pivotal moment in this season’s Bundesliga title race. Here we take a look at some of the key match-ups in personnel that could have a bearing on the outcome of the crunch clash.
Xabi Alonso v Thomas Tuchel
The game sees the new upcoming trainer facing the more experienced and successful coach. Leverkusen took a gamble when appointing the inexperienced Xabi Alonso last season, but it is a gamble that has well and truly paid off. The Spaniard has transformed the side from one languishing in 17th place to unbeaten league leaders and genuine title contenders.
The whole squad have bought into his playing style and taken to it superbly. Leverkusen have the meanest defence, the second most potent attack and are winning the hearts and minds of the neutrals with their highly attractive and effective brand of football. He favours a back three with Alejandro Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong as very attacking wing backs. Two central midfielders allow two attacking midfielders to support the lone striker.
Alonso is unlikely to spring any tactical surprises against Bayern with his Plan A working absolute wonders this season.
Thomas Tuchel has won trophies at Dortmund, PSG and Chelsea and that is the expectation of him at Bayern. He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the club were quite sure he was the right man when they took the decision to ditch Julian Nagelsmann after last season’s defeat at the Bay Arena. He has come under fire this season with the always outspoken Dietmar Hamann highly critical, but Tuchel will be judged on titles come the end of the season.
Jonathan Tah v Kim-Min Jae
Leverkusen and Bayern have the two meanest defences in the league and are led superbly by their respective defensive talismen. Jonathan Tah has taken his game to the next level this season under Alonso’s tutelage and his form makes him look a shoo-in for a place alongside Antonio Rüdiger for Germany at the European Championships.
He was rumoured to be on his way out of the club last summer, but has become the cornerstone of the Bayer back three alongside Edmond Tapsoba and Odilon Kossounou. He leads the Bundesliga for passing accuracy with a figure of 94.3%. His winning goal in the Pokal quarter-final was just another example of him leading by example, but he will have his hands full on Saturday dealing with Bayern striker Harry Kane.
South Korea’s elimination from the Asia Cup at the semi-final stage at the hands of Jordan was music to Thomas Tuchel’s ears as it meant an early return of ‘Monster’ Kim-Min Jae to Bayern. He was actually suspended for the semi so should be fresh enough to return to face Leverkusen.
His arrival from Napoli in the summer has been a huge success with the 27-year-old more than justifying his reputation and quickly becoming a mainstay of the Bavarian back four. He will no doubt be busy at the weekend but Leverkusen’s attack will have to be on point to get the better of the Korean colossus.
Florian Wirtz v Jamal Musiala
While Granit Xhaka provides the solid base in midfield and sets the tempo, it is the creative genius of Florian Wirtz that Leverkusen often turn to in order to unlock defences and create the chances for the attacking players. He has five goals and eight assists thus far and this clash with Bayern will give him the chance to show he is a player for the big occasions and put him in the frame for a starting berth for the German national team for this summer’s European Championships.
If Wirtz is the big, young hope for Leverkusen, then the equivalent for Bayern is Jamal Musiala. Still only 20 years old, the twinkle-toed attacker has five goals and two assists this season and will also have eyes on being a starter for Germany in the summer. He may move out to the left to accommodate Thomas Müller in the absence of Kingsley Coman, but his threat will still be one to watch for the Leverkusen defenders.
Granit Xhaka/ Robert Andrich v Leon Goretzka/ Joshua Kimmich
The centre of midfield will be a key battleground on Saturday evening as the two engine rooms look to take control of proceedings. A big question mark remains over the fitness/ availability of Exequiel Palacios for Leverkusen meaning a pairing of Granit Xhaka and Robert Andrich is likely.
Xhaka kept his discipline superbly last weekend against Darmstadt when he knew a booking would rule him out of this game and his presence as the metronome for the Werkself will be vital. Only Lennard Maloney has covered more distance than him this season and he leads the league for touches of the ball (2301) by some way with more than 450 more than his nearest rival (Waldemar Anton). Unsurprisingly, he has attempted the most passes and has an accuracy of 91.9%. He has yet to score for the Werkself, but this weekend would be the perfect time to rectify that statistic.
Robert Andrich has shown his versatility this season playing as both a defensive midfielder and as an emergency centre back. He scored a cracker in the Pokal win over Stuttgart in midweek and will be relishing the upcoming battle with Bayern’s central midfielders.
The fact that this match is so important leads one to believe that Joshua Kimmich will move mountains to get himself declared fit and selected following his shoulder injury. He is a player for the big occasions and despite the impressive recent displays from Aleksandar Pavlovic, Bayern would welcome their midfield warrior back with open arms and it would increase their chances of overall success.
Patrik Schick v Harry Kane
The two most potent attacks go head-to-head this weekend, but Leverkusen will still be without the services of top scorer Victor Boniface. His stand-in Patrik Schick hasn’t scored since his impressive first-half hat trick against Bochum on matchday 16. He made way for new signing Borja Iglesias last weekend at Darmstadt, but did return for the Pokal win against Stuttgart. Bayern are strong in the air, so he will have to be at his sharpest to add to his goals tally.
Harry Kane on the other hand seems to be able to get on the scoresheet at will and going two games without a goal is considered a goal drought in his world. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time as his goal last week against Mönchengladbach showed. 24 goals in 20 matches is beyond outstanding, but he’s up against the league’s meanest back line this weekend.
Jeremie Frimpong/ Alejandro Grimaldo v Noussair Mazraoui/ Raphael Guerreiro/ Sacha Boey
The game could be won or lost on the strength of the effectiveness of either side’s attacking full backs. Alejandro Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong operate as very attacking wide men and both have contributed greatly to Bayer’s attacking prowess this season. Grimaldo has been a revelation since joining from Benfica in the summer with seven goals and ten assists. Frimpong, so impressive last season, has kicked on again this year with five goals and seven assists.
Bayern coach Thomas Tuchel has a big decision to make with his full backs with Alphonso Davies injured. Raphael Guerreiro would be the natural choice having oodles of experience playing there for Dortmund, but rumours have emerged this week that Noussair Mazraoui could be deployed there with new arrival Sacha Boey playing on the right.
Whatever the constellation, the team whose wide players have the bigger influence will have the advantage. If one can force his opposite number to defend more, a threat will have been annulled.
Lukas Hradecky v Manuel Neuer
Both sides possess an excellent keeper should anything get past their solid defensive lines. Lukas Hradecky had some very wobbly moments at the start of last season, but this season has seen back to his reliable best and he has a league high nine clean sheets to his name. He has experienced Pokal glory during his time with Eintracht Frankfurt, but he would dearly love to lead his side to the Meisterschale this season. He has the young Matej Kovar keeping him on his toes so he knows he needs to keep up his current level.
Not much needs to be said about Manuel Neuer as at 37 years of age he is still amongst the world’s best and shows no sign of dropping off his massively high standards. He has had a slight calf issue this week and missed some training, but he will be doing everything he can to be declared fit and take his place to captain Bayern in this massive crunch clash.