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Preview: Bayern Munich’s path to the DFB Pokal passes through RB Leipzig

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Jupp Heynckes’s first true test has come at a critical time

RB Leipzig v VfB Stuttgart - Bundesliga Photo by Matthias Kern/Bongarts/Getty Images

The luck of the draw pitted two of the best, most exciting teams in Germany against one another in just the second round of the DFB Pokal: Bayern Munich versus RB Leipzig. This knockout match against a dangerous side also comes hot on the heels of the loss of Thomas Müller to a muscular injury.

Who replaces Müller?

Just as Bayern had gain momentum from three straight wins since Jupp Heynckes took over the team, injuries have laid low yet another key player: Thomas Müller suffered a muscle tear in Bayern's victory over Hamburg and will miss the next three weeks. The defining question leading up to this critical match thus is who Heynckes will call upon to replace him.

There are two obvious candidates: James Rodriguez and Thiago Alcantara. Each comes with his own complications.

James is ostensibly the player on the roster who is most like Müller. He thrives in the 10 position behind the striker, using his passing and vision to create opportunities and shots. While not strictly the same “interpreter of space” as Müller, he roams freely across the pitch finding and using space to his team's advantage.

But James also has not been a consistent factor thus far this season. He put on a gala performance in Bayern's 3-0 trouncing of Schalke, but his last audition against Hamburg was cut short at halftime - when Heynckes replaced him with Müller himself. The potential is there, but James's form makes him a significant risk.

Thiago played two of his best games under Carlo Ancelotti as the central attacking midfielder in Bayern's two matches against Leipzig last season. Heynckes could field a close approximate of the lineup that annihilated Leipzig 3-0 in December 2016 and came from behind to beat them again 5-4 in May. Thiago moreover has been in excellent form.

The catch is that Heynckes has preferred to play Thiago as the advanced member of his double-pivot alongside Javi Martinez (who is expected to be fit for the match). Pushing Thiago up field thus opens a new gap in the lineup. This problem, however, is easier to solve than the loss of Müller. A rampaging Arturo Vidal would be a very good choice for this box-to-box role. Alternatively, Corentin Tolisso or even Sebastian Rudy could compliment Javi in the midfield.

We thus should perhaps expect the following lineup:

Javi Martinez trained with the team and should be ready to make his comeback. Mats Hummels suffered a minor knock to the ankle, but he also is expected to start. Kingsley Coman similarly suffered no serious harm from the game against Hamburg.

Bulls on parade: Leipzig in form

Ralph Hasenhüttl's team is riding high on a string of four consecutive victories: Köln, Dortmund, Porto, and Stuttgart. Now comes a greater test. Hasenhüttl views the game as “fifty-fifty” and intends to make the most of Leipzig's chance to advance past the Rekordmeister.

Leipzig's second game against Bayern last season, which they led 4-2 until Bayern turned the match on its head, can serve as an example. Leipzig will attempt to capitalize on any mistakes, move the ball swiftly through the midfield, and mount a determined defense to absorb Bayern's attacks.

In terms of personnel, Hasenhüttl has nearly a full complement to draw on. Timo Werner missed time due to an unusual spine blockage, but he returned to action against Stuttgart last week, providing the assist to Marcel Sabitzer's game-winning goal.

Leipzig’s offense is particularly difficult to control on account of the flexibility inherent in the lineup. While Forsberg and Sabitzer generally stay on their respective sides of the field, both the defensive midfielders Naby Keita and Kevin Kampl and the forwards Werner and Jean-Kévin Augustin (signed from Paris Saint-Germain) roam fairly freely across the pitch.

Leipzig also offers a lethal combination of creativity and pace. Emil Forsberg and Naby Keita are two of the most dangerous playmakers in the Bundesliga. Keita in particular can single-handedly defeat a team with his dribbling, passing, and shooting. With the lightning-fast pace of both Werner and Augustin ahead of them, Leipzig can turn an intercepted pass into a shot on goal in the blink of an eye. Bayern’s defense cannot relax for an instant.