Way back in October 2012, Leverkusen were the last team to beat Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. But while the venue and opponents were identical to that loss, the circumstances were not. This time around, Leverkusen were suffering a torrid run of form, and Bayern would look to make their opponents' poor Rückrunde even worse.
Pep Guardiola exercised restraint in his team selection heading into this game. Unencumbered by injury concerns but wary of the busy period of matches that lies ahead, squad rotation appears to be the order of the day for the Spaniard – hence a quite frankly ridiculous substitutes bench that included the likes of Alaba, Ribéry, and Javi Martínez.
The main question ahead of the match seemed to concern how this reshuffled Bayern side would fare against Leverkusen's physical midfield unit of Simon Rolfes, Lars Bender, and Emre Can. The omission of Philipp Lahm shaped today's midfield into a deep-lying Doppelsechs of Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger – a variation to the captain's role in the 4-1-4-1 formation. Ahead of them, Götze favoured the left flank while Müller set up to do his Raumdeuter thing behind Mario Mandzukic.
Like so many of Bayern's opponents this season, Leverkusen were happy to sit back and counter-attack – an approach that yielded an early foray into Bayern's penalty area after direct running from Heung-Min Son and Gonzalo Castro. It also yielded their best moment when Stefan Kießling's through-ball left Son alone in front of goal. In a reprieve for Bayern's defence, Son slipped the ball to the left of the target, and normal service was restored.
Bayern's predictably assured ball retention was hampered by the occasional wayward pass in an altogether slightly scrappier affair than we're used to. The Bavarians racked up five corners after quarter of an hour, but each time the Leverkusen defence were equal to it. It's telling that Bayern's best chances in these opening exchanges came in the form of long-range efforts from Schweinsteiger and Müller.
For much of the first half, Leverkusen's play was a lesson in how to stifle Bayern's attacking threats. They harried, stayed patient, and forced Die Roten to play down the wings and rely on crosses – an astute move in the absence of Franck Ribéry. When a thumping shot from Rolfes forced Neuer into action, it appeared that Leverkusen could make a game of this after all.
Bayern's first goal was therefore a mixture of momentary brilliance and stubborn persistence. Schweinsteiger lofted a tempting ball towards the back post and Mario Mandzukic converted his first real chance of the game with a powerful header past Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno. The goal came as a relief after a frustrating half for Bayern and served as another reminder of what the Croatian striker offers this Bayern side when they aren't at their best.
Cracks began to appear in Leverkusen's disciplined display during the second half when they conceded an early free-kick just outside the box. Bayern had previously gone for short passing to work this kind of set-piece into the box. This time, though, Schweinsteiger opted for a direct shot that was, for want of a better word, textbook: over the wall, past the goalkeeper, and into the top corner of the net. Bayern's lead grew to two goals, and the away side had some thinking to do.
Sami Hyypiä's side reacted by shifting to a more attacking mentality, and Can joined the ranks of Leverkusen players streaming forward when they regained possession. As the game became a more open affair, Bayern could have scored a third when Leno palmed Ribéry's swerving shot into the feet of Müller before gratefully collecting the ball from close range.
This late flurry of activity paid off for Leverkusen when energetic work from Sidney Sam culminated in a late goal for the visitors. In a similar move to Bayern's first goal, Kießling towered over Rafinha to meet an angled cross and fire a header into the bottom corner. There wasn't enough time to make it anything other than a consolation goal, but it did mar the outcome of an otherwise competent Bayern performance.
Bayern now face three Bundesliga matches in the space of a week against Mainz, Hertha Berlin, and Hoffenheim. It seems that Guardiola's biggest challenge during this period is to juggle his players without compromising the team's chances of victory. This match will no doubt reassure him that, even in an altered capacity, his side can make winning look reasonably comfortable.