There are few Bundesliga stadiums that are fraught with trepidation for champions Bayern Munich. But an encounter with Bayer Leverkusen (live, Saturday, FOX, FOX Sports Go, 12:30 p.m. ET) has been a nuisance in the fixture calendar for several seasons. Just one of the last six meetings at the BayArena has ended in a Bayern win, while the German champions squeezed through last season on penalties in the DFB-Pokal amid a challenging spell with injuries.
Given that the league leaders head north with just two recognized central defenders, one of which is Serdar Tasci who joined on loan from Spartak Moscow on deadline day, there is a feeling that Leverkusen could be one of the few sides in the Bundesliga capable of challenging Bayern. "I see almost every game of Roger Schmidt’s team, they usually have up to 10 clear-cut chances," Pep Guardiola said in August ahead of his side’s 3-0 home win over Leverkusen.
"It will be an extremely hard game," said sporting director Matthias Sammer on Wednesday, days after Bayern delivered the perfect response to a week of unnecessarily negative press with a thoroughly dominant 2-0 win over Hoffenheim. Joshua Kimmich, 20, temporarily solved the defensive issue on Monday, but Guardiola will probably look for the best solution before Saturday’s game in Leverkusen. What that combination will be given Holger Badstuber is the only fit central defender, is anyone’s guess.
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Jerome Boateng, the cornerstone of Guardiola’s team, will miss three months with a groin injury at a time when Bayern are aiming to secure the treble, including the Champions League crown."Without Menedi Benatia, Boateng and with Javi Martinez not quite fit yet, we have a problem," said Guardiola last week. Martinez has since been ruled out for an extended period after knee surgery on Tuesday, while emergency loan signing Tasci picked up a mild concussion in his second training session.
Confirmation that Guardiola will be joining Manchester City in the summer has been another threat to Bayern’s season. The coach used his day off on Monday to tie up the deal with the Premier League side before returning to training in Munich the following morning. The effects were limited last week, but whispers out of the club suggest some players are not so content with recent developments.
Leverkusen, fourth in the standings, are perhaps the Bundesliga’s Jekyll and Hyde team. Schmidt’s team have not managed to put together a streak consisting of three or more consecutive league wins since the end of last season. Leverkusen’s full-throttle pressing system has lost its edge, while defensive fragility and a general lack of structure have paralyzed any ambitions they had to compete for the top-two positions.
Schmidt may have berated his side’s attack after the 1-1 draw at Hoffenheim which kicked off the Rückrunde, but Leverkusen’s season has been carried by the scoring exploits of Javier Hernandez. Since swapping Manchester United for Leverkusen towards the end of the summer window, the 27-year-old Mexican has scored 21 goals in 24 matches in all competitions. Chicharito has netted seven in his last five Bundesliga appearances.
But Leverkusen have a habit of failing to deliver when it gets to crunch time. Key players like Hakan Calhanoglu and Karim Bellarabi have underperformed this season, while injuries to Lars Bender and Christoph Kramer threaten to destabilize the team.
How things would have panned out had Charles Aranguiz not suffered immediate injury would have been interesting to see. The Chilean offers a brilliant foundation fromwhich to build the team, but it seems like the Copa America winner will miss the entire season. Central defender Jonathan Tah and former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Kevin Kampl are pivotal across the spine of the team.
With Schalke, Wolfsburg, Borussia Mönchengladbach and surprise-package Hertha Berlin around them, Leverkusen have stiff competition for a place in the top four. And if Schmidt cannot steer Leverkusen towards Europe’s top club competition again, the club management will have a serious decision to make in the summer given the expectations at the BayArena.
History bodes well for Schmidt and Leverkusen when Bayern are in town. The Werkself tend to deliver when it matters, as shown by their Champions League performances against Barcelona and the record against Bayern in the last six seasons. After battling against the odds for so long, now Leverkusen might realistically sense an opportunity to hurt Bayern this weekend.