The Bundesliga season officially begins on Friday, when Bayern Munich hosts Bayer Leverkusen at the Allianz Arena. Both Bayern and Leverkusen will open the season with squads depleted by injuries, but the burden falls more heavily on the guests.
Bayern looks to set the tone for the season
Bayern’s triumph over Dortmund in the German Supercup and dominant performance against Chemnitz allayed some of the fears surrounding the team after a disastrous preseason in Asia, but hardly all of them. A victory on penalties over an almost equally battered Dortmund is hardly the decisive victory fans craved.
With a decisive defeat of Leverkusen, however, Bayern hopes to set the tone for the team’s second season under head coach Carlo Ancelotti. Bayern is heavily favored to win, but it will have to overcome a series of injuries and uncertainties to do so, beginning with captain Manuel Neuer.
Neuer has been recovering from a broken metatarsal in his foot since Bayern’s ill-fated clash with Real Madrid last season. Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was cautiously optimistic that Neuer may be fit for the match, but Ancelotti ruled him out at the post-practice press conference.
Among other players on the mend, Arjen Robben and David Alaba are both “in good shape.” Ancelotti will decide tomorrow whether they start. Juan Bernat, Jerome Boateng, James Rodriguez, Thiago Alcantara, and Javi Martinez are definitely unavailable.
How Bayern might line up
The biggest uncertainty is whether Robben is ready to leap into the starting lineup. If he is, Ancelotti could field a 4-2-3-1 with Thomas Müller in his favorite position behind Robert Lewandowski, flanked by the familiar two-man demolition team that is Robbery.
Ulreich; Alaba, Hummels, Süle, Kimmich; Vidal, Rudy; Ribery, Müller, Robben; Lewandowski
Bayern’s back line should feature Alaba, Mats Hummels, Niklas Süle (in for Boateng), and Joshua Kimmich.
In the midfield, Ancelotti could deploy Vidal as box-to-box wrecking ball, with Sebastian Rudy pulling the strings as defensive central midfielder. Rudy's performances in Bayern's last two matches - particularly the Supercup victory over Dortmund - have been spectacular. If Ancelotti loved Xabi Alonso to a fault, he must love Rudy.
With Ribery in fine form and both James and Thiago out, the rest of the offense would comprise Müller as central Raumdeuter, Robben on the right, and Lewandowski up front.
But if Robben is not ready to start - a real possibility - Ancelotti could replace him with Kingsley Coman or opt instead for a 4-3-3 featuring Corentin Tolisso:
Neuer (?); Alaba, Hummels, Süle, Kimmich; Vidal, Rudy, Tolisso; Ribery, Lewandowski, Müller
This variant would push Müller out right, but the presence of Tolisso behind the forwards could compensate, if Vidal and Rudy bear the brunt of the midfield defensive duties.
Whichever variant Ancelotti chooses, with Bayern's roster depth, it should be more than enough to beat the Leverkusen squad that is dragging itself into the season at the Allianz.
Good thing Leverkusen is owned by a pharmaceutical company
They've had to swallow a few bitter pills already, and the season has not even started.
Bayern might be battered quantitatively, but Leverkusen's troubles are qualitative. The club is opening the season with a radically different roster, fewer stars, and a new coach.
After Gegenpressing-maestro Roger Schmidt was fired late last season, interim coach Tayfun Korkut guided the team to a disappointing twelfth-place finish. Now Heiko Herrlich is at the helm. Herrlich once coached Bayern's U17 team (2013-15) before moving on to Jahn Regensburg, with which he won promotion to the 3rd and then the 2nd Bundesliga in back-to-back seasons. In the top flight, Herrlich coached Bochum for most of 2009-10, but was dismissed after the team fell to sixteenth place.
As for stars, Leverkusen has lost much of its luster. After a dramatic fall-off in form, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez left 'kusen for the glamour of West Ham in the English Premier League. Free-kick ace Hakan Calhanoglu, who was banned by FIFA in February until the end of the 2016/17 season, now plies his trade for AC Milan. And key defender Ömer Toprak transferred to Borussia Dortmund - to the bench, to be precise.
Of the players that remain, 18-year-old prodigy Kai Havertz is unlikely to be available after suffering a blow to the leg just above the knee in Leverkusen's DFB-Pokal victory over Karlsruhe. That leaves striker Kevin Volland without a partner. Herrlich might replace Havertz with his joker, Joel Pohjanpalo, German national player Julian Brandt, or perhaps Leon Bailey.
Another major loss is captain Lars Bender, who recently aggravated the ankle that plagued him last season. His place will likely be taken by Dominik Kohr, who rejoined the team from Augsburg. Lars's twin brother Sven Bender, recently acquired from Dortmund, has had trouble with his calf, but is expected to be fit to anchor Leverkusen's back line alongside Jonathan Tah. Attacking midfielder Kevin Kampl and Brandt have both struggled in practice but are expected to be ready.
Leverkusen thus could line up like this:
Leno; Wendell, Bender, Tah, Henrichs; Aranguiz, Kampl, Kohr; Brandt, Volland, Bellarabi
Even a fully fit Leverkusen is unlikely to overcome whatever Bayern Munich throws at it. If victorious, Bayern will equal the record for the most consecutive opening day victories with six, joining Kaiserslautern, which won five openers in a row from 1989 to 1994.