It feels like forever now, but I vividly remember what I did on February 9th of this year. When the last part of a hectic two-week magic game went up and down in Germany, I found myself in the spaceship-like Allianz Arena north of Munich on very familiar territory.
The planets had aligned in such a way that the showdown between Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig on Sunday evening in the Bundesliga title race had additional weight. The Bavarian establishment took over the upswing with high aspirations from the east and only one lonely point between the sides in a real standings lead Top game.
In fact, questions were asked of Leipzig that had slipped from their place. The front runners who went into the winter break had fallen twice in the league and again in the cup against Eintracht Frankfurt within 10 days, in addition to a 2-2 draw against Borussia Mönchengladbach. The pressure was palpable.
While the game allowed us to compare super strikers Robert Lewandowski and Timo Werner, it was a night of defensive exploits from Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano. In cooperation with former German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann in the stadium, we have repeatedly honored the young French international for his special praise when he successfully went from head to toe (and head to head) with Lewandowski, the striker in the business.
It was a strange game that Bayern controlled it, but Leipzig arguably created the best chances; Both Marcel Sabitzer and Werner messed up their lines and the first goal was imminent at the start of the second half. A 0-0 draw was a reasonable result for both sides, but I had the feeling that Leipzig had to do more in terms of content.
This need to make a statement brings us to the heart of the historical problem for Leipzig that goes into the meeting on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET, live stream on ESPN +). They have not yet broken through the Bayern defense on four previous Bundesliga visits, although an optimist would say that the men from Saxony have shown at least one improvement with every passing game.
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Four years ago, under the coach Ralph Hasenhuttl at the time, Leipzig knew in his first top season that they could jump ahead of Bayern in the table. However, they hardly ever put a glove on top of them Record champions in a limp 3-0 defeat, unsupported by Emil Forsberg’s red card. The trend is probably their friend, because since then they have lost 2-0 and 1-0 before the goalless stalemate in February against Bayern. But if Leipzig should be a real one Championship trophy Challenge the Bavarians, somewhere on the line they will have to penetrate the animal’s belly and cause damage.
I remember that 18 months ago, when the teams met for the DFB Cup final in Berlin, I thought it might be Leipzig’s time. Instead, FC Bayern achieved a relatively comfortable 3-0 win and secured a double for Niko Kovac and his protégés. Leipzig, now in the second season under Julian Nagelsmann, is about to meet this weekend and has a lot to do.
For starters, Bayern have made it in the Bundesliga lately instead of pushing the opponents aside. Thomas Müller summed it up in a wonderful conversation with his colleague Archie Rhind-Tutt by describing ugly winning in Stuttgart as the German equivalent of “doing it on a windy day in Stoke, even though Stuttgart is not Stoke”. Indeed not, but we got his wider point: in the midst of a crowded fixture list for the top clubs, with games every three or four days, you can’t be expected to reach impressive heights every time.
If there is a Bayern weakness that needs to be exploited, I can’t help but have the feeling that it is to be found in the back – especially on the right. Benjamin Pavard got off to a bad start to the campaign and the first reserve Bouna Sarr is still finding his feet in his new team. This will be of vital importance to the mill of Leipzig’s best outfield player this season, the tireless Angelino. Despite serving as a full-back on the left, he’s the league’s top scorer with four goals. Last week he had a pretty messy win against Bielefeld. Granted, his performance was a little slower before, but he’s a constant threat, especially in the future. Bayern need a special plan to contain it on this side.
In this game, the best attack (Bayern) meets the most competent defense (Leipzig). Nagelsmann’s team knows how to keep opponents calm, led by goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, Upamecano, Willi Orban and Marcel Halstenberg. When players are absent, there are several cover options. Some will rightly bill this again as an Upamecano versus Lewandowski, but there will be more nuances.
My questions have more to do with higher positions. Dani Olmo and Forsberg can shine with their insured technical games, but Alexander Sorloth did not shoot all cylinders by the middle of the attack in the Bundesliga, although he played the “super sub” role in Leipzig’s Champions League thriller on Wednesday Played perfect night in Turkey. I would still prefer Yussuf Poulsen to give the go-ahead given his know-how at this level and his ability to lead the line.
Strangely, the expectation that Bayern will have a lot more ball should actually play into the hands of RB Leipzig. Yes, they have developed into a better team since Nagelsmann’s takeover, but remain devastating as obsessive counter-pressure. Bayern’s high line can make them vulnerable to a team that knows the art of steering such vertical maneuvers.
My gut still tells me that Leipzig needs more than just conforming to Bayern if a title is really in their compass. Saturday is the acid test, especially against a rested Lewandowski & Co., many of whom were spared the trip to Atletico Madrid during the week and whose place in the Champions League was already secured in the round of 16. It will tell us a lot about Nagelsmann’s men and their ability to take on the best when it really counts.