After a shorter-than-usual winter break, the Bundesliga returns with a bang on Friday night as two of the league’s form sides, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, meet.
The two sides lost just five games between them before Christmas, with the home side determined to give a better account than they did in the reverse fixture at the start of the campaign.
They have hope too – Bayern have a poor recent record at the BayArena, whilst they are missing four senior players through injury. Nevertheless, they will be determined to start in the right fashion as they aim for a sixth-consecutive Bundesliga title.
Both sides ready despite a short winter break
The winter break has been a short one this year, with little more than three weeks since both Leverkusen and Bayern played their pre-Christmas DFB-Pokal ties. That has meant little time for them to build up their fitness, although Bayern did fit in a quick trip to Qatar. Leverkusen on the other hand stayed at home, playing friendlies against SpVgg Greuther Fürth and Preußen Münster.
Heiko Herrlich said that they are “happy to get going again, even though the break was very short.” They face a tough test though against the runaway league leaders, and he believes that they will need to be “100 per cent on top of our game” to have any chance of winning. He is also keen to avoid the mistakes of their defeat at the Allianz Arena in August, when they lost 3-1. “We showed far too much respect (to Bayern),” he said. “This time we want to set aside respect and fear.”
The only major bit of transfer business conducted by either club in the January window has seen Bayern re-sign Sandro Wagner from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, almost ten years after he left the club as a youngster. He scored his first goal since returning in the 6-0 victory over Al-Ahli in Qatar, although he failed to hit the target in a game on Tuesday against SG Sonnenhof Großaspach, with Franck Ribéry scoring a hat-trick in the 5-3 win.
Jupp Heynckes, returning to a club he managed between 2009 and 2011, is expecting the game to be “both thrilling and tough.” He is wary though a threat posed by a Leverkusen side that are unbeaten in four months. “They’re a young, highly talented, hungry, quick team,” he said, “with plenty of imagination.”
Reasons to be hopeful for both Herrlich and Heynckes
As well as having the honour of opening the second half of the season, these two sides also met in the opening match of this season’s Bundesliga. Bayern had looked to set to run away with the game when Robert Lewandowski made it 3-0 just after half-time, but in a sign of the lethargicness that marked Carlo Ancelotti’s last days in charge, they took their foot off the gas and were lucky Leverkusen only scored one, through Admir Mehmedi, in response.
Whilst performances were lacking more than results in the league under Ancelotti, Bayern have hit top gear since Heynckes took over in October. They have won nine of the ten Bundesliga games he has taken charge of, with the only blot in that record a defeat at Borussia Mönchengladbach, and they come out of the winter break with an 11-point lead on Schalke 04 in second.
Leverkusen had started the season shakily, however they eventually found their feet under Herrlich, who took charge in the summer. All three of their defeats game in their first five matches, with Hertha BSC the last team to beat them, back in September. Six wins and six draws since saw them back amongst the UEFA Champions League places as they ended the Rückrunde in fourth place.
Although they have only won once in the last 11 meetings with the champions, Leverkusen have only lost once to Bayern at home this decade. Bayern’s last win at the BayArena came in March 2013, but Heynckes was keen to remind reporters at his pre-match press conference that he had been in charge then. They did win a Pokal tie on penalties though in 2015, with this fixture finishing goalless in each of the last two seasons.
Leverkusen at full strength, four key players out for Bayern
Despite a few doubts in the run up to the game, Herrlich will have a near-full squad to choose from on Friday night. Leon Bailey – currently subject to rampant transfer speculation – and Karim Bellarabi returned to full training in the week after injures, whilst Lars Bender has recovered from a cold. Vladlen Yurchenko is the only absentee.
Bailey’s availability will be key for Leverkusen, with the Jamaican having been amongst the best players in the league this season. Kevin Volland will also start, with the nine goals he has scored this season the joint most, with Mark Uth, by a German in the Bundesliga so far this campaign. Otherwise it will be a case of how bold Herrlich is prepared to be as to who will start, particularly with his wide options.
Bayern will still be without long-term absentees Manuel Neuer and Thiago, whilst both Lewandowski and Mats Hummels (who became a father on Thursday) will also miss out. They have returned to training in the last few days following respective knee and groin injuries, however Heynckes ruled them out on Thursday, saying “it would be careless to risk them.”
Joshua Kimmich is definitely available after an illness, although Heynckes said “it’s not clear whether or not he will start.” If he doesn’t, that will mean a start for Rafinha, whilst Jérôme Boateng and Niklas Süle will be the most likely combination at the heart of defence. If Lewandowski is indeed absent, that will provide the perfect opportunity for Wagner to make an immediate impact, although Heynckes wouldn’t 100% confirm that he will start.
Bayer Leverkusen: (3-4-2-1) Leno; Tah, S. Bender, Retsos; Havertz, L. Bender, Aránguiz, Wendell; Bailey, Brandt; Volland.
Bayern Munich: (4-2-3-1) Ulreich; Kimmich, Boateng, Süle, Alaba; Martínez, Vidal; Robben, Müller, Ribéry; Wagner.
Quotes via Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich.