Bayer Leverkusen have certainly done their best to keep this year’s title race open and exciting. Four weeks ago, Borussia Dortmund were looking dead-certs to clinch their first Bundesliga title since 2002. But the gap at the top has been closed from twelve points to five (with five to play), meaning that the final few weeks of the season will be edgier for Dortmund fans than they might have hoped, but looks set to provide some great excitement for the neutral.
Jupp Heynckes' side have deservedly thrown themselves right into contention, taking 22 points out of a possible 24 in their last eight games, a remarkable run which leaves this superb BVB side suddenly looking nervously over their shoulders. But it seems probable that if Die Werkself still hold dreams of pipping Dortmund to the post, they will have to win at Bayern München on Sunday afternoon, which promises to be an exciting match for many reasons.
Firstly, this is a crunch game considering both sides’ league positions. With Leverkusen chasing the title and Bayern fighting for a Champions League spot the stakes are extremely high. Either way, the result will potentially have a big impact on how the final table looks. Not to mention it’s the German champions’ first match since unscrupulously sacking their coach Louis van Gaal, while their opponents are coached by the very man taking the reins at the Allianz Arena next season.
Heynckes will certainly be fancying his chances against his future (and former) employers. As well as their backroom changes and poor form, Bayern also have some selection problems ahead of the match. Both Arjen Robben and Holger Badstuber are suspended, with Bastian Schweinsteiger doubtful with an ankle injury, meaning the home side will have to cope without the experience, creativity and dependability that the three offer between them. The absence of Badstuber could prove as important as that of Robben and Schweinsteiger, as the Reds are looking desperately short on quality at the back without him.
Leverkusen, on the other hand, have a near-full strength squad to choose from, boosted by the return of Rene Adler and Renato Augusto. That squad includes Michael Ballack, in fine form of late, who faces the club he left for Chelsea on such unfriendly terms in 2006. Adding to Ballack’s incentive on Sunday afternoon will be the desire to finally guide perpetual nearly-men Leverkusen to their maiden Bundesliga title, himself having been so famously and agonisingly a runner-up in four tournaments in the summer of 2002 while at Leverkusen.
So who will come out on top? Ahead of his first game in charge, Bayern caretaker-boss Andries Jonker believes his side can finally unshackle themselves from van Gaal’s rein and play to their true potential, while Heynckes and his confident team will be looking to keep up their excellent form. Defeat would be terrible for both sides; it would all but end Leverkusen’s title challenge and leave Bayern with four games to save third place and a Champions League spot. Missing out on that would be a disaster for the club. A draw would suit the hosts better. It promises to be a tense and attacking game, which I think Leverkusen might just win (2-1 if I had to pick a score). The side will really believe they can win which can be decisive in matches like this. Without Robben, Bayern still have huge firepower up-front, but their shaky defence could be unsettled by the likes of Ballack, Renato Augusto and the particularly impressive Sidney Sam, while Leverkusen’s well-balanced midfield could just give the attackers the platform they need, particularly if Schweinsteiger is missing.