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Friday, July 19, 2024

Bundesliga braced for Leverkusen-Bayern Munich title showdown

The Rheinland prides itself on a fun-loving approach to life most of the time, but especially in the week of Karneval. It so happens that this flamboyant, multi-day festival of outlandish costumes, inebriation and generally forgetting about mundane everyday humdrum, coincides with the highly serious business of a Bundesliga Gipfeltreffen (summit meeting).

It’s one thing to have first in the table playing second, but when both teams are as talented as Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, it takes the intrigue surrounding Saturday’s showdown (12:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) to an even more advanced level — here in Germany and beyond.

Leverkusen are the headline grabbers, and rightly so. How could it be otherwise when you’ve gone 30 games unbeaten in all competitions from the start of the season and done it with a brand of patient, passing football that delights everyone who loves the game?

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Bayern, although two points behind the Werkself (factory XI) actually can boast historically the sixth-best record any team in any guise has ever enjoyed at this stage of a Bundesliga season. Between them, the leading pair have collected an astonishing 102 points, which represents a league record going into a 21st matchday.

Bayer Leverkusen’s past is littered with nearly stories, particularly in 2000 when they threw the title away on the last day, and in 2002 when they found themselves in contention again in the denouement while landing in the Champions League and DFB-Pokal finals for good measure. However, there was no trophy parade, in either year. Not since 1993, when they took the Pokal, has a major piece of silverware come Leverkusen’s way.

As a result, the nicknames, Vizekusen (Runners-up-kusen, if you like) and the even-crueller Neverkusen have stuck. But as former Bayer 04 keeper Rene Adler remarked recently, it’s doubtful players like Granit Xhaka, Alejandro Grimaldo, Jeremie Frimpong or World Cup winner Exequiel Palacios can relate to the tag. They are living and prospering in a glorious here and now, far removed from the trite cliches of the past.

We can’t talk about Leverkusen’s poise without linking it to manager Xabi Alonso and the smooth and graceful manner of his own playing performances. I commentated on their opening game of 2024 at FC Augsburg, the ultimate difficult place to go to on a raw day.

Despite domination from Bayer, it somehow remained 0-0 going into stoppage time. Whereas many a side would change course and go more direct, Leverkusen were true to their coach’s ball-cherishing beliefs, and on 94 minutes, got their reward after perhaps the most fluent passing move of the game finished off by Palacios.

A week later at RB Leipzig, it was the Leverkusen late show again, with Piero Hincapié netting the 91st-minute winner after they had turned around a 2-1 deficit. Then on Tuesday in the Pokal, against a sparkling VfB Stuttgart, they twice displayed the resilience to come back and level the game before Jonathan Tah headed home a gem of a ball from Florian Wirtz, this time right on 90 minutes. Bayer 04 give you the impression they are never beaten and simply don’t panic.

Leverkusen, as one of only two Bundesliga sides left in the Pokal, are now overwhelming favourites to lift the Pott. The Europa League, in which they have a bye into the round of 16, beckons also.

But what of the Meisterschale (champions bowl), the ultimate prize and one that has always eluded them previously? Saturday against the Rekordmeister (record-holders) will be a good guide as to their prospects but by no means decisive.

It is precisely Leverkusen’s magnificent football that has somehow contrived to make Bayern seem to be underperforming when in fact they are by any estimation excelling and indeed have seven points more than at the corresponding juncture last season under Julian Nagelsmann.

Thomas Tuchel has at times been the lightning rod for criticism, which is somewhat unfair given the sheer number of injuries recently to an already — by Bayern and top-club standards — thin squad. Tuchel made this very point at the start of the campaign, but in words and style, he is a coach perhaps better appreciated outside Germany than within. In an interview with ESPN’s Archie Rhind-Tutt, Tuchel said he felt more valued in England, and this remains a media topic here in the Bundesrepublik.

Where one can be critical is in assessing the performances that have been variable even within games. Last week against Borussia Monchengladbach, when they picked themselves up after conceding first and won 3-1, and in the 1-0 reverse against Werder Bremen, they lacked tempo.

Tuchel does suddenly now have choices: at right-back between newcomer Sacha Boey and Noussair Mazraoui; and in central defence with Kim Min-Jae, back following South Korea‘s Asian Cup dismissal by Jordan, and Dayot Upamecano, fit again after a thigh muscle injury. In midfield he even has what is known as die Qual der Wahl (the torment of the choice) with Joshua Kimmich available again after a shoulder problem, but should he return to the fold at the expense of 19-year-old Aleksandar Pavlovic, who has forged a respectable alliance with Leon Goretzka? Pavlovic also offers devilish set-piece deliveries, a not-insignificant detail.

Bayern still rely on the individual qualities of Harry Kane, whose 24 goals from 20 matches include three hat tricks, Leroy Sané and Jamal Musiala. And we can’t forget Thomas Müller, although he has started only eight times in the league.

Stuttgart in midweek perhaps gave the Rekordmeister a blueprint of sorts for Leverkusen with an effective high-pressing game that, when fully coordinated, troubled the Werkself playing out from the back. Bayern themselves used this tactic to good effect, sacrificing possession for efficiency in a high-profile game against Stuttgart in December and ran out 3-0 winners.

The fact remains that this is a Leverkusen team without a noticeable weakness and their squad strength is more evenly spread than that of Bayern.

On Karnevalssamstag (Karneval Saturday), we should revel in a celebratory occasion. Can Wirtz, still only 20 and having missed a big chunk of his early career due to an ACL, who exquisitely set up two of the three goals in the Pokal triumph, make this his stage?

Will Xhaka, who has landed in the right place at this later point in his career, shape the game and set the table for a possible five-point advantage at the top? Or will Bayern, who have a history of getting it right when it truly matters, catapult themselves above Bayer and into top spot?

Showdowns like this don’t come around every week.

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