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Bayern Munich at Bayer Leverkusen is the biggest Bundesliga match in years

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FC Bayern München Training Session Photo by M. Donato/FC Bayern via Getty Images

Bayern Munich is facing its most credible Bundesliga title challenge in ages.

With nearly 60% of the 2023/24 season in the books, the Bavarians are staring up from second place in the table at a roaring Bayer Leverkusen side — who are undefeated in 20 matches.

That makes this Saturday’s road trip to Leverkusen one of the most high-pressure Bundesliga matches in a long, long time. Mark your calendars for 12:30 PM EST on February 10. It is a must-watch.

How ready is Bayern?

Psychologically, this is fresh territory for the Bayern players. A handful of title races over the past decade have gone down to the wire, but owing mostly to the Bavarians’ own stumbles and ending mainly in their rivals face-planting before the finish line.

This year Bayern is on pace for 85 points, which would have won the league in seven of their 11 straight title-winning seasons. It just might not be enough. And an objectively commanding season to date is being treated as crisis.

The Bavarians have a way about crisis. Put on a tough face, light some fires under players, fire some coaches. That usually does the trick — unless, of course, the trick is really relying on rivals, usually Borussia Dortmund, to self-destruct. When Bayern hit the reset button last spring, ending the Julian Nagelsmann tenure and exchanging a rising coaching star for the veteran Tuchel, it took a while for the ship to stabilize. Arguably, that is still a work-in-progress.

A chaotic summer transfer window — executed without a sporting director, and leading to an equally frantic January window to address shortcomings in squad planning — has left Bayern short-handed in some departments, and with fresh faces to integrate in others. But the limitations may have just cornered Tuchel into fielding his best XI in attack: Jamal Musiala on the wing, Thomas Müller in the center, and Leroy Sané and Harry Kane rounding out a fearsome hydra.

Still, recent results have been uneven. A celebrated 3-1 win over Gladbach has eased anxieties, but it was only a week before that when Bayern faced sustained pressure on the road at Augsburg in a game that ended 2-3. And a week before that when former Bayern youth player Mitchell Weiser rifled home the shot that lifted Werder Bremen — currently ninth in the table — over the Bavarians at home.

How would the Bayern board react to a loss?

Ultimately, this is only one game in a long season. Bayern would still be on track for a more than respectable 81 points in the table with a loss, and Leverkusen — who would be on track for 89 — might still find it hard to get there.

However, it is not going to feel that way and the Bayern bosses are not known for their patience.

Tension exists between existing standards — win now, set to an incredibly high bar — and a recognition that to compete at the highest levels in the Champions League, Bayern cannot simply rely on its war chest. It needs a soundly-executed sporting project, one which the club seemed to set its course on when it announced the signing of Nagelsmann, on a record-setting transfer fee at the time, to a five-year deal.

There is a sense that the board has learned from its impulsiveness. Indeed, some of its members are no longer the same: both the CEO and sporting director were sacked after the final matchday of last season. But everything about Tuchel, from his coaching style to his transfer preferences to his history at previous clubs, suggests more “win now” than long-term project. Of course, that may change at Bayern.

But if the Bavarians intend on having an entire era with their current manager, they need to buy in on “the process.” That includes the lows as well as the eventual promised highs, and maybe being less sensitive to how the table looks at any given moment than they are accustomed to. (Last season, Union Berlin briefly held the top spot before ultimately settling at fourth, with a dismal 62 points. But it set off alarm bells.)

After all, any project can be sabotaged by a constant lack of confidence in its direction. And reports are already filtering out suggesting that Tuchel’s position at Bayern is only as safe as his results: the same story as ever.

Tuchel’s availability last year — the presence of an experienced, stabilizing coach who won the Champions League for Chelsea in his first season there — likely played into Nagelsmann’s dismissal. The perfect opportunity to change course safely.

But the tables do turn. Now it’s Leverkusen’s Xabi — a former Bayern player and long-time favorite of the club’s bosses — who looks like the most exciting coaching prospect to come along in a while. The perfect opportunity to start a new project.

How did we get here?

If Borussia Dortmund could usually be counted on to tumble out of a real title challenge, Bayer Leverkusen’s rise to the top has been a surprise. RB Leipzig looked to be the Bundesliga’s talent factory besides — culturing the likes of Dominik Szoboszlai (Liverpool), Joško Gvardiol (Manchester City), Christopher Nkunku (Chelsea FC), and Nordi Mukiele (Paris Saint-Germain)...all in the last two summer transfer windows.

But the club formerly known as “Neverkusen” — hold your horses, they may still yet keep the moniker — have been sleeping giants for a while. From the days of Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt (now at Arsenal FC and BVB, respectively) to now, Die Werkself have never been short on exciting talent, nor capable veterans.

This current generation, headlined by Germany wunderkind Florian Wirtz and Dutch star Jeremie Frimpong, may just be the best yet.

Enter the right coach. Xabi Alonso, who trained under names as titanic as Mourinho, Guardiola, and Ancelotti, has set the league on fire since his arrival midway through last season. His winning pedigree and mentality have translated onto the pitch. Leverkusen is a team that believes — and expects itself to win. A 2-3 road win over Leipzig on January 20, capped by Piero Hincapié’s stoppage time goal, exemplifies a never-say-die mentality that will look all too familiar to the Bavarians.

Add to that an astute transfer window that has brought in key veterans at the right positions: Alejandro Grimaldo at left-back, Jonas Hofmann in attack, Granit Xhaka in midfield.

When Bayern sacked Nagelsmann, the company line was that the ‘constellation’ of players and coach no longer made sense. At Leverkusen, the stars are all aligning.

Where will we go next?

In the end, this is great for the Bundesliga. Iron sharpens iron and it has been a while since Bayern has encountered a whestone of this quality. Even a loss — even a league title loss — could inspire regenerative growth, good for a club and league at risk of going stale.

Of course, it may not even turn out to be an even contest.

The last time Bayern faced a game of this magnitude? The first of Tuchel’s tenure, a Der Klassiker against BVB where everything seemed on the line. One huge Dortmund howler set the tone and the Bavarians cruised; Dortmund is fighting just for a Champions League place this year.

The last time Bayern actually lost the Bundesliga? Jürgen Klopp was soon poached by Liverpool, Bayern landed Dortmund stars Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels in short order, and an era of utter Bavarian dominance commenced.

So Bayern could smash Leverkusen, rising to the top as they often do in big games. Meanwhile, not only Bayern but clubs like Real Madrid and Liverpool — now that Klopp is stepping down — have been circling around Xabi, and Bayern is eyeing players like Wirtz, potentially to succeed a generation-defining star in Thomas Müller.

The dawn of a new era, or the cycle merely continues? Tune in Saturday to find out.

What can Bayern Munich fans expect against Bayer Leverkusen? Has Tuchel found his ideal lineup? Is Leroy Sané entering another dip in form? Will Aleksandar Pavlović be the key to the midfield? We discuss all that and more in our new podcast episode! Listen to it below or on Spotify.

As always, we appreciate all the support!

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