It is neither hyperbole nor cliche to say that this weekend’s clash between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich at the Bay Arena could be pivotal or even momentous in this season’s Bundesliga title race. The Topspiel late on Saturday pitches the so far unbeaten league leaders against the reigning and perennial champions. This has all the ingredients to be an absolute cracker.
Bayer Leverkusen have been an absolute breath of fresh air in the Bundesliga this season and are gaining numerous admirers by the week with their exciting and attacking brand of football. Coach Xabi Alonso (in his first big role) has transformed the Werkself from a struggling mess when he arrived to genuine title contenders. There were indications last season as to the trajectory, but the way the side have just clicked into gear this season has been a joy to watch from the neutrals perspective.
The intensive pressing style, the quick interchange of passing and the way they suffocate teams and keep going has been very impressive and the players brought in during the summer transfer window have all proved inspired with Granit Xhaka, Alejandro Grimaldo, Jonas Hofmann, Victor Boniface and Nathan Tella all stepping seamlessly into the team. Josip Stanisic has done a job when called upon, while reserve goalkeeper Matej Kovar has proved more than capable when selected.
Leverkusen have the meanest defence in the Bundesliga so far with just 14 goals conceded in their 20 league matches. Lukas Hradecky has kept nine clean sheets with deputy Matej Kovar also keeping one. The back three has been marshalled superbly by Jonathan Tah, who has taken his game to the next level this season when it was rumoured he could be leaving last summer. They are the second highest scorers after Bayern with 52 goals scored.
They have been pushed this season at times and have thus far proved their credentials. After beating RB Leipzig on the opening matchday (straight after the Roten Bullen had won the Supercup against Bayern), they came away from the Allianz Arena with a deserved 2-2 draw on matchday 4. They flew through their Europa League group and also survived scares against Borussia Dortmund and VfB Stuttgart. Whatever challenge they have faced, they have faced in full confidence/ belief that the Alonso way will prevail and it’s paid massive dividends up till now.
That said, despite their fantastic season so far, they are still ‘only’ two points ahead of Bayern and they can feel the champions breathing down their necks.
With twenty games played this season, Rekordmeister Bayern have seven more points than at the same stage last season, yet they are still not in their accustomed position at the head of the Bundesliga field. They have had their blips (the 5-1 hammering at Frankfurt and the home loss to Werder), but they have also shown their awesome attacking power and are unsurprisingly the league’s top scorers with 59 goals.
When you spend close to €100 million on a striker you expect goals to follow, but in the case of Harry Kane, the Englisman has surpassed expectations with an outstanding 24 goals in 20 games so far. He still looks on course to break the season scoring record of Robert Lewandowski, who had previously beaten the seemingly unbeatable record of 40 set by the legendary Gerd Müller.
Bayern have had their problems this season with injuries and suspensions and coach Thomas Tuchel has had to rotate his squad a lot more than he perhaps would have liked. However, with the abundance of riches at his disposal, the absences have easily been covered and even given chances to young players with midfielder Aleksandar Pavlovic one of the main beneficiaries. The 19-year-old has really come to the fore of late, scoring goals and showing a maturity beyond his years.
While Saturday’s big clash won’t decide the destination of this season’s Meisterschale, it will give the winners a big boost. Should Leverkusen prove victorious it would put them five points clear, but more importantly send out a message that they are Bayern’s superior and give their title aspirations a massive push. They beat Bayern last year to start the beginning of the end for Julian Nagelsmann, and they would dearly love a repeat performance.
If Bayern win, it will see them back on top of the table and will indicate that ‘normal service’ has resumed and they will perhaps ignite doubts as to whether Leverkusen are actually ready to take their crown. Dortmund came close and failed last year, will the same story play out this season?
The absentees from the Asia Cup and the African Cup of Nations are slowly returning and Xabi Alonso once more has the services of Edmond Tapsoba and Amine Adli to call upon. Odilon Kossounou remains absent, while Victor Boniface’s injury will keep him out for a while to come.
The big question remains whether key midfielder Exequiel Palacios will be recovered from his muscle injury, but the game may have come too soon. Lukas Hradecky should return in goal after Matej Kovar played in the cup quarter-final.
Possible line-up: Hradecky – Tapsoba, Tah, Hincapie – Frimpong, Xhaka, Andrich, Grimaldo – Hofmann, Schick, Wirtz
Thomas Tuchel still has a lengthy injury list, but can at least welcome back centre back Kin-Min Jae from the Asia Cup. Alphonso Davies’ injury last week means that he needs replacing at left back. Raphael Guerreiro would seem the natural choice, but some reports are speculating that Noussair Mazraoui could deputise with Sacha Boey starting on the right,
Manuel Neuer is a slight doubt having had to miss training this week due to an injury. The return of Joshua Kimmich and Dayot Upamecano is close, and the duo could yet be realistic options to start on Saturday.
Possible line-up: Neuer – Mazraoui, M-J Kim, de Ligt, Guerreiro – Kimmich, Goretzka – L. Sané, T. Müller, Musiala – Kane
What they’re saying:
Xabi Alonso: “It’s a big game, against a big opponent. We need a very good performance with a perfect display to win the game. It will be very, very difficult but we want to give it our all because we are in a good moment. We want to use our energy. We expect a strong opponent, with a strong collective and strong individual quality. It will be an emotional and intense game. Our goal is to play a very good game and to win we need an almost perfect performance.
“We feel the motivation that our fans give us. It’s a top game, both teams are in a good position. We are looking forward to a very good atmosphere in our stadium. I will enjoy this game, as will the players. Connecting with our fans is the most important thing for us! Tomorrow we want to celebrate together with our fans after the game.”
Thomas Tuchel: “Normally you’d watch it on TV. I’m very grateful that I have the chance to influence proceedings. We have a very attractive week ahead of us. It’s still early in the season. A win for Leverkusen opens up a gap, but it won’t be over, although it feels like a special moment to lay your cards on the table. It’s about challenging ourselves and therefore the opponent from the first second to the last. We want to take the next step.
“Thirty teams have tried and 30 teams have failed [to beat B04] . There’s been a few last-minute wins for them lately. Their run is extraordinary. That’s thanks to their quality. We’re only two points behind. There’s no reason to hide. It’s the moment to lay your cards on the table. We’ll be ready to challenge Leverkusen. We’re going to Leverkusen to win.
“It’s exciting that two teams are earning points at such a high level. We’ve also had a very good campaign in terms of our history. We’re completely focused on what we can do. We want a statement performance. If we want to win, we need a top performance. It’s the week in which we want to prove ourselves. We’re playing for our own objectives, and our objective is to step things up a notch, and then we can be fine in every game. Then we’ve got the individual quality for it. We’re ready to improve.”
06/02/24 VfB Stuttgart (h) 3-2 W (DFB Pokal)
03/02/24 Darmstadt (a) 0-2 W (Bundesliga)
27/01/24 Borussia Mönchengladbach (h) 0-0 D (Bundesliga)
20/01/24 RB Leipzig (a) 2-3 W (Bundesliga)
13/01/24 Augsburg (a) 0-1 W (Bundesliga)
03/02/24 Borussia Mönchengladbach (h) 3-1 W (Bundesliga)
27/01/23 Augsburg (a) 2-3 W (Bundesliga)
24/01/24 Union Berlin (h) 1-0 W (Bundesliga)
21/01/24 Werder Bremen (h) 0-1 L (Bundesliga)
12/01/24 Hoffenheim (h) 3-0 W (Bundesliga)
The corresponding fixture at the Bay Arena last season took place on matchday 25 and spelt the beginning of the end for Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann following defeat for the visiting Bavarians. The Rekordmeister took the lead in the first half via a Joshua Kimmich goal, but two second half penalties dispatched by World Cup winner Exequiel Palacios saw the Werkself turn the game around.
The match proved Nagelsmann’s last in charge with the Bayern bosses taking the shocking decision to replace him during the ensuing international break.
Players to watch:
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.