Bayern Munich must not overlook Bundesliga nemesis Augsburg
Sunday sees Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich make the short trip on the Autobahn to face Augsburg in a Bavarian derby. Manager Pep Guardiola will once again pit his wits against Markus Weinzierl, his Bundesliga nemesis, the only coach in the league to have prevailed twice against the Catalan's charges.
Augsburg were the first team to inflict a Bundesliga defeat in Guardiola's debut double-winning season. A surprise 1-0 blemish in early April 2014 ended a magnificent unbeaten run of 53 Bundesliga games under Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola. That Augsburg affair remains etched in the memory as Guardiola took rotation to frenzied new levels in the weeks leading up to the Champions League semifinal demolition by Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid.
Bayern paraded the epitome of an "experimental" starting lineup that day with the likes of Mitchell Weiser, Daniel van Buyten, Ylli Sallahi, Xherdan Shaqiri, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Claudio Pizarro and Mario Mandzukic all starting the game. All these players have since disappeared from the Bayern payroll, as well as the more notable Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger. None are likely candidates for Guardiola's next project at Manchester City.
Bayern also played with the handbrake on during last May's defeat, just 72 hours before a virtually impossible salvage job against Barcelona in the Champions League semifinal return leg in Munich. Guardiola rested goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and handed a rare start to Spanish benchwarmer Pepe Reina. The ex-Liverpool keeper was sent off in his third and final Bayern appearance in only the (unlucky) 13th minute for hauling down the bulky Raul Bobadilla in the box. To add insult to injury, Danish midfielder Hojbjerg, then on-loan at Augsburg from Bayern, set up Bobadilla's 71st minute winner for a famous derby victory for the "Fugger" city side. Incidentally, that derby loss marked was first time Guardiola had suffered three defeats on the bounce in his trophied managerial career.
Borussia Dortmund will be confident of three points at home to bottom of the table Hannover and, with "only" an eight-point cushion at the top from nearest challengers BVB, Guardiola will surely field his strongest side this time around.
Bayern's lengthy injury list shows a few signs of abating, with Franck Ribery, Mario Gotze and new signing Serdar Tasci all in contention for a spot on the bench. Bayern are not guaranteed a win in Augsburg and it is likely to be a low-scoring game. Bayern have dropped seven points this season. All the aberrations have come in the previous six away games -- tepid goalless stalemates in Frankfurt and Leverkusen alongside their sole defeat in Monchengladbach.
With less than a fortnight until the Champions League first leg against Juventus, Arturo Vidal needs to step up his game to nail down a starting place against his former club. Vidal is likely to get a chance to impress as Xabi Alonso will sit out the derby on Sunday through suspension after his sending-off in Leverkusen.
It's generally Bayern who have European domination on their minds, but Augsburg and Weinzierl also will have an eye on Europe as they play Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool in an attractive Europa League tie next Thursday evening.
Robert Lewandowski is the one player that Bayern certainly cannot afford to lose through injury. Lewandowski's opener six minutes before half-time calmed the Bavarians' nerves after a dicey opening half hour in Bochum. The second division side were reduced to 10 men minutes later and the game was done for the underdogs. Bayern could even afford the luxury of Thomas Muller's missed penalty (his third in nine attempts this season) and were able to cruise in the second half. Thiago doubled the lead just after the hour and Lewandowski added his second in the dying seconds to seal a seventh straight German Cup semifinal appearance. The Polish striker has hit braces in three out of Bayern's four games after the winter break. Is there a better "free" transfer signing in the game today?
There was a "Bayern bonus" after the final whistle when the 17-time winners received the plumbest of draws in the next round. Treble-seeking Bayern will play Werder Bremen at home for a place in the final. Without wanting to tempt fate too much, it would be a surprise if thousands of Bayern supporters haven't already booked their flights to the final in Berlin. Bayern have beaten Bremen 11 times in a row in all competitions and racked up 42 goals in the process.
Mark Lovell covers Bayern Munich for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @LovellLowdown.