No matter how hard they try, Bayern Munich cannot seem to catch a break in the injury department. New doctors cannot help, outside reinforcements cannot help, and players seemingly on the verge of returning still cannot help.
With all their injury trouble, Bayern should have an easy time against a team they beat 3-0 in the first half of the season right? Well... maybe not. Bayer Leverkusen may not be a model for consistency, but they have found a combination that works and will not be coming off a midweek fixture like last time.
Pep Guardiola has found ways to grind out points before, but their less-than-desirable road record this season speaks for itself. The club's journey to BayArena will be a tough to undertake, and they will have to fight hard to prevent themselves from dropping points for the third time this season.
The Match (78th Meeting)
Location: BayArena, Leverkusen, Germany
Referee: Knut Kircher
Bayern: 32 W, 12 D, 5 L – 67 YC, 2 RC
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Bundesliga: 43 W, 14 D, 16 L
DFB Pokal: 3 W, 0 D, 1 L
Largest Victory: 5-0 (Bundesliga: September 4, 1982, Munich)
Largest Defeat: 2-5 (Bundesliga: March 9, 1997, Leverkusen)
Depleted Bayern defense leading to an interesting combination at the back: has this happened before? Oh right! Against Bayer Leverkusen in August! Guardiola did not have a single center back at their disposal and used David Alaba and Xabi Alonso as a center back pair. Funny, how Bayern's current defensive predicament is still better than the one they had five months ago.
Though there aren't many of them, each player Bayern has in defense combats pretty well with Leverkusen's options in attack. The biggest piece Guardiola has this time around is Holger Badstuber, someone who matches up better with Leverkusen's aerial threats than Xabi Alonso. Guardiola may also have more confidence to use Kimmich this time around after the youngster's performance in defense in recent weeks. He may even be able to use Juan Bernat once more, who could overcome his groin trouble to mark Leverkusen's shifty wingers.
A more succinct defense will allow Bayern to overwhelm Leverkusen's defense more easily. Douglas Costa has torn Bundesliga fullbacks apart, and there is no reason to expect anything different against Leverkufen's below average ones. The way Leverkusen is structured, Guardiola may be again tempted to play five forwards considering how successful the rampant combination play created chances against Hoffenheim.
Bayern have not performed well on the road this season, but the way they match up with Leverkusen may give them an opportunity to at least maintain their eight-point gap atop the table.
Projected Lineup (3-5-2):
Thomas Muller – Robert Lewandowski
Kingsley Coman – Douglas Costa – Xabi Alonso – Philipp Lahm – Arjen Robben
David Alaba – Holger Badstuber – Joshua Kimmich
Bench: Tom Starke, Juan Bernat, Rafinha, Sebastian Rode, Arturo Vidal, Thiago Alcantara
Out/Suspended: Medhi Benatia (thigh), Jerome Boateng (groin), Mario Gotze (groin), Javi Martinez (knee), Franck Ribery (calf), Serdar Tasci (concussion)
In true Leverkusen style, this Roger Schmidt club was very inconsistent during the first half of the season. However, recent dominance have allowed them to spring back into the Champions League picture and look like a formidable side once again.
What changed? One simple tactical switch: playing Stefan Kießling and Javier Hernandez up front. Chicharito has been a revelation on his own – also a weapon Schmidt did not have in his last meeting with Bayern – but Kießling's newly found motivation has also made a real difference. An unexpected pair, the two have scored 12 goals combined in Leverkusen's last five matches. Their interplay has taken the pressure off of Hakan Çalhanoglu and Karim Bellarabi to create chances on their own, creating a much more dynamic Leverkusen attack.
A sturdy core at the back supports that attack, but Leverkusen's defense does fray at the edges. Schmidt's fullback options were so thin at times that he had to move Wendell over to the opposite flank, a disastrous situation to say the least. With Giulio Donati now in Mainz, Roberto Hilbert is the only one who can stand opposite Wendell, a better scenario but still not ideal for a team facing some of the best wingers in Europe.
Leverkusen's ability to contend has flip-flopped between hope and hazard, but they know how to show up for their home fans.
Projected Lineup (4-4-2):
Stefan Kießling – Javier Hernandez
Hakan Çalhanoglu – Christoph Kramer – Kevin Kampl – Karim Bellarabi
Wendell – Ömer Toprak – Jonathan Tah – Roberto Hilbert
Bench: Dario Krešić, Sebastian Boenisch, Tin Jedvaj, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, André Ramalho, Julian Brandt, Admir Mehmedi
Out/Suspended: Carlos Aranguiz (ankle), Lars Bender (ankle), Robbie Kruse (toe)
Of Bayern's remaining matches, this fixture provides the most intriguing set of match ups on the field. Though they don't seem a formidable pair, Chicharito and Kießling will give Bayern fits, Kießling with his aerial ability and Chicharito with his spatial awareness in attack. Bayern's best chance may be to man mark the two, allowing other players to fight for possession and transition well into attack. Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman will be important for Bayern the other way, for the one-on-one battles they win will create the best chances. Bayern have had some close calls against Leverkusen in recent meetings, but they tend to find a way to win.
The Other Action
Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. SV Werder Bremen (Friday, 2:30 PM ET)
FC Schalke 04 vs. VfL Wolfsburg (Saturday, 9:30 AM ET)
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. VfB Stuttgart (Saturday, 9:30 AM ET)
Hannover 96 vs. 1. FSV Mainz 05 (Saturday, 9:30 AM ET)
Hertha Berliner SC vs. Borussia Dortmund (Saturday, 9:30 AM ET)
FC Ingolstadt 04 vs. FC Augsburg (Saturday, 9:30 AM ET)
Hamburger SV vs. 1. FC Köln (Sunday, 9:30 AM ET)
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim vs. SV Darmstadt 98 (Sunday, 11:30 AM ET)
UEFA Champions League Opponent
Frisinone vs. Juventus (Sunday, 9:00 AM ET)
|Hertha Berliner SC||10||4||5||29||21||+8||34|
|Bayer 04 Leverkusen||9||4||6||29||21||+8||31|
|FC Schalke 04||9||3||7||26||26||0||30|
|1. FSV Mainz 05||8||3||8||24||24||0||27|
|1. FC Köln||6||7||6||20||25||-5||25|
|FC Ingolstadt 04||6||5||8||12||20||-8||23|
|SV Darmstadt 98||5||6||8||19||29||-10||21|
|SV Werder Bremen||5||4||10||23||36||-13||19|
|TSG 1899 Hoffenheim||2||8||9||18||28||-10||14|