A huge week awaits in the 1. Bundesliga. After last weeks schedule saw a whole bunch of “top half vs. bottom half” games and no real clashes between heavyweights, this week features six of the top seven teams in the league playing against each other.
Even if Bayern and Dortmund are the only teams with a chance at a title, this week will go a long way to determining the result of the battle for the league’s four Champions League spots.
Read on for a look at the three big games on tap.
Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen
Massive game against a team that have given Bayern some trouble in recent years. In the last 13 Bundesliga matches between these two sides, Leverkusen have taken at least one point from seven of them, and have won three of them outright. Stef Kiessling has tormented Bayern for much of that period, but last spring it was Çalhanoğlu and Bellarabi really having their way with Bayern (although Bayern did field a weakened team ahead of a Champions League match).
This year, Bayern again have a mid-week match immediately following. It’s a Pokal tie rather than a CL match, though, so I think Pep will field a strong line-up for this one. Here’s my guess: Lewandowski, Costa, Mueller, Robben, Thiago, Vidal, Berna, Alaba, Badstuber, Lahm, Neuer
That’s a slightly less offensive look from last week, when Bayern had five true forwards on the pitch to start the game. I think, against a Leverkusen side that’s pretty damn strong at home, Bayern will come out with a more conventional look. Alaba as a left CB in a four man back line, with the LB pressing forward to let Alaba slide into the corner frequently, was tried early in the season, with some success. With Tasci concussed in his first practice, Javi Martinez out for a month after a minor surgery, and Boateng out for the long term, our options there are limited.
Coman and Kimmich would be first guys off the bench here, along with Xabi Alonso. If they don’t get any action, those three will likely start in the mid-week match vs. Bochum.
Bayern Leverkusen are again in contention for a Champions League spot. They don’t have much of a chance for the Bundesliga title (11 points behind Bayern, with Dortmund and Hertha between them), but they’re top for in the league and still alive in the Pokal and the Europa League. B04 have a dangerous attacking set-up. Javier Hernandez has obviously been the star, with 21 goals across all competitions in just 24 matches.
Last week, Leverkusen did what they haven’t usually done in the last few months: they lined up with both Kiessling AND Chicharito on the pitch, in a true double-striker formation. The odd man out in this look is Mehmedi, with Bellarabi and Çalhanoğlu on the wings and Christoph Kramer and Kevin Kampl in a double pivot. So the question is whether B04 will use this slightly more attacking formation against Bayern, or whether they will pull back with just one striker and set up in a more balanced 4-2-3-1. My bet would be the latter, with Kiessling held in reserve for a second half substitution. But considering Stef has had a good goal-scoring record against Bayern, anything’s possible.
Leverkusen’s defense is alright, but not great. They let RB Giulio Donati walk in the winter transfer season (possibly in hopes of bringing in Debuchy, which didn’t pan out). Roberto Hilbert is back in the RB spot now. He’s a decent player, but Bayern’s attack, with Costa and/or Coman pressing down that flank, presents a tough match-up. Bayern will likely control possession and get a majority of the chances, but this is perhaps the stiffest test Die Roten have faced in a while.
Hertha Berlin vs. Borussia Dortmund
A high-stakes clash between second-place and third-place. Dortmund have had a handful of slip-ups this year, but are still clearly the second best team in the league behind Bayern. They’ve won their two spring semester matches by a combined 5:1 score-line, and they have the most goals in the league (and could threaten the all-time record with some luck). With Bayern facing a tough road match this week, Dortmund are thinking this could maybe be a chance to make up some ground.
But Hertha are a threatening opponent in their own right. Their two-man strike force of Ibisevic and Kalou, with 16 goals between them, present a tough day for any defense. And Hertha have been solid at home: just one loss in nine home matches, and a +9 goal differential.
One thing to be aware of is that Hertha have mainly been feasting against weaker competition. There’s nothing wrong with that – the sign of a good team is that they beat the teams they’re supposed to beat. But in the first half, HBSC played six matches against the other six teams currently in the top seven. They lost five of them, including a one-sided 3:1 loss to this same Dortmund team in August. For that reason, BVB have to be favored here, my respect for Hertha’s good season notwithstanding.
Schalke 04 vs. VfL Wolfsburg
The third of our clashes between two good teams, this one could end up playing the biggest role in the eventual allocation of the Bundesliga’s four Champions League spots. These two sides currently sit outside the top four: fifth place for Schalke (one point off the fourth-place pace of Leverkusen) and seventh for Wolfsburg (four points back). They also have somewhat pedestrian goal differentials, with S04 sitting on an even differential and VfL on +4. You don’t want to say any match is a “must win” at this stage. The loser of this one, though, has a lot of ground to make up. Keep in mind both of these teams are also playing continental ball, so they will have compressed schedules and short-rest games throughout the spring.
Wolfsbug maybe have the more talented roster overall, with Draxler, Kruse and Dante coming over last off-season to fill out the team sheet. But Dante hasn’t thrived, and Drax and Kruse are both doing just okay. VfL have also won just a single game on the road, and their goal differential is a poor -10 away from home. The Wolves have been clean-sheeted four times on the road in league play, and have scored multiple goals on the road just once: a visit to Eintracht Frankfurt that they ended up losing 3:2 anyway.
Accordingly, I think this is a bigger match for VfL than it is for Schalke. If they lose this one, the Wolves league season becomes a nightmare (though advancing to the knockout stage in the CL is a good accomplishment no matter what). They have Hertha and Bayern to follow before the end of February. If they lose tomorrow, their possible route to a top-four finish is next to impossible.
This is a big week all around for the league. Three highlight matches, along with a few other interesting games and a bunch of new players for some teams.