More than any other point during their rise to dominance, Bayern Munich have looked vulnerable against domestic competition. Their rickety form sets up a very fascinating clash against another top Bundesliga team, but this time a DFB-Pokal run is at stake.
The Rekordmeister will travel to BayArena and have to face a team they barely snuck past in November, Bayer Leverkusen. This is not the "Neverkusen" observers are used to seeing either, but rather an opulent team starting to figure this whole big market football thing out. This Leverkusen team has young, budding stars who actually play together, a congregation of talent any top side would have trouble knocking out.
The fixture between these two normally does not disappoint. With high-aptitude managers on opposing touchlines, this will be a high-stakes poker match where the teams are willing to wait for the right hand to go all in.
The Match (78th Meeting)
Location: BayArena, Leverkusen, Germany
Head: Felix Zwayer
FC Bayern: 14 W, 2 D, 2 L – 21 YC, 2 RC
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Television and Streaming:
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FC Bayern: WLWWW
Bayer 04: WWLWW
Bundesliga: 42 W, 14 D, 15 L
DFB Pokal: 3 W, 0 D, 1 L
Largest Victory: 6-2 (Bundesliga: August 8, 1981, Munich)
Largest Defeat: 2-5 (Bundesliga: March 9, 1997, Leverkusen)
With so many key attackers on the shelf, Pep Guardiola set Bayern up to do something against Borussia Dortmund it has rarely done in his time in Munich: concede possession. The crazy part? It worked. Bayern got in behind, and was able to close off the shooting angles to concede the equalizer.
The change was so drastic, one has to wonder if it could work twice. The five in the back Bayern used outnumbered the four Dortmund attackers, and the three in midfield did the same. The same tactic could work against the four Leverkusen attackers as well, matching up the quick and agile Juan Bernat with Leverkusen's best player, Karim Bellarabi.
The one modification Guardiola will have to make is to invert the triangle in midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger is out with a sprained ankle, and even if he were fit, Bayern will need a more attacking presence on the field if they want to advance in the Pokal.
Mario Götze is the obvious answer, having sat at the weekend and able to both make runs in the middle and provide width on the flanks. With Philipp Lahm regaining his form, Götze may not eve be required to press and win the ball, but he might be able to anyways considering how bad Leverkusen is in possession. Götze is also the only one healthy in the squad who can take on defenders, an aspect Bayern sorely missed against Dortmund.
Bayern has yet to have a convincing result against a top German side. In this win-or-go-home situation without several of their best players, they will have to grind out another result Leverkusen in order to advance.
Projected Lineup (3-4-1-2):
Robert Lewandowski – Thomas Müller
Juan Bernat – Xabi Alonso – Philipp Lahm – Rafinha
Dante – Jérôme Boateng – Medhi Benatia
Bench: Pepe Reina, Holger Badstuber, Sebastian Rode, Thiago Alcântara, Gianluca Gaudino, Mitchell Weiser, Claudio Pizarro
Out/Suspended: David Alaba (knee), Javi Martínez (knee), Franck Ribéry (ankle), Arjen Robben (abdominal), Tom Starke (ankle)
Every season, Bayer Leverkusen look like a club ready to take strides to the next level. Ultimately, it is the knockout competitions which show they are not yet ready for the three-front battle. This year, however, that is certainly not the case.
Not only did they raise their game against Atlético Madrid, taking the Champions League runners-up to penalties, but also their game did not drop against Kaiserslautern, a team who embarrassed them in the quarterfinals a year ago. Add the five consecutive Bundesliga matches they won the last five match days and one could easily pronounce this team in high form.
Of course their flaws, while diminishing, are still very present. Their predictability on the ball and the inability to keep it stagnates their attack against the better teams. Karim Bellarabi is very elusive, but even he runs out of ideas when no one else is coming up with any (especially with Son Heung-min suspended). Normal poacher Stefan Kießling has been invisible in too many matches to the point Roger Schmidt is relying on new signing Josip Drmić more and more.
Having started as a No. 10 at the weekend, Gonzalo Castro will likely move back into defense, especially with Bayern thin in attacking players. His ability to direct the play will determine how well Leverkusen maneuver in the final third. He will be able to rely on the positioning and shape of his defenders behind him, making him free to move forward if Bayern make things difficult in the numbers game.
Leverkusen has certainly showed their prowess in space against the Bundesliga bottom-feeders, but they will need to extrapolate that success to the highest level if they want to advance to their first Pokal semifinal since 2009.
Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1):
Julian Brandt – Hakan Çalhanoglu – Karim Bellarabi
Gonzalo Castro – Lars Bender
Sebastian Boenisch – Emir Spahić – Ömer Toprak – Roberto Hilbert
Bench: Dario Kresić, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Tin Jedvaj, Stefan Reinartz, Simon Rolfes, Vladen Yurchenko, Stefan Kießling
Out/Suspended: Robbie Kruse (ankle), Son Heung-Min (red card)
In what is already an exciting Pokal field, these two teams definitely have the potential to play a fascinating and nerve-racking 90 minutes. Without Son in the side, Leverkusen are going to run out of ideas quickly, and Bayern will be able to push them onto the defensive more than they did at the weekend. With another attacking option by his side, Thomas Müller will be able to use the space to set up the winning goal. It may not be pretty, but Bayern will find a way to win.