Bayern Munich must make early work of Darmstadt with Juventus looming
Bayern will play host to Darmstadt in a "David vs. Goliath" encounter on Saturday afternoon. The magnitude of the match is a significant contrast to Tuesday's mouth-watering Champions League last-16 clash away to Italian giants Juventus.
The main interest ahead of the trip to Turin surrounds injury-hit Bayern's defensive options. History shows it doesn't pay to second-guess Pep Guardiola's team selection, but with the Moroccan Medhi Benatia returning to full training, you would assume that he has to play against Darmstadt if he is to feature against Juventus. We could also witness a Bayern debut for Serdar Tasci: Saturday's duel against Darmstadt is exactly the type of low-key affair the former German international, on loan from Spartak Moscow, was acquired for.
Mario Gotze and Franck Ribery will also need some game time against the "Lilies" if they are to play any sort of role in Turin. Sebastian Rode will likewise hope for a second league start of the season against the club where he played youth football just over a decade ago.
However, any idle thoughts about the "Italian Job" will have to wait. "We're not thinking about Juve yet. We're taking it a game at a time: first Darmstadt, then Juventus," assured Douglas Costa, while fellow dribbling midfielder Thiago echoed this sentiment: "I'm 100 percent focused on Darmstadt, then on Juventus."
Darmstadt boast the third-best away record in the league (behind Bayern and Borussia Dortmund) and therefore shouldn't be underestimated on their travels, having won three out of their last four away games. However, it seems like the visitors have already conceded the three points to the record German champions.
After picking up a host of bookings in their narrow 2-1 defeat last weekend to Leverkusen, Darmstadt suddenly find themselves down to the bare bones in their already thin squad through suspension. Questions were asked as the 13th-placed side -- suspiciously or cynically -- decided to sacrifice five of their best players for the trip to the Bavarian capital.
The champions-in-waiting should be ultra-confident of maintaining their 100 percent record at home and making it 11 wins in a row at fortress Allianz Arena. In fact, Guardiola will garner high hopes of breaking another record this season by winning all their Bundesliga home games (17) -- before departing for Manchester.
Darmstadt have never beaten Bayern in eight attempts in all competitions. Theirs is a real rags-to-riches story, a side that's climbed all the way to the Bundesliga from the depths of the Oberliga Hessen in the last decade. You have to go back 50 years to the 1964-65 campaign for the first ever meeting between the two sides when Bayern weren't even in the Bundesliga. The Bavarians coasted to a 10-0 win on their way to claiming the Regionalliga Sud title before gaining entry to the Bundesliga later that season via the play-offs.
In 1982, in their last Bundesliga meeting in Munich, current Bayern Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge fired Bayern to a 4-1 victory in a freezing Olympic Stadium in front of a paltry crowd of just over 11,000. At least there were no problems for fans getting tickets to watch their heroes back then.
Unlike in the cagey 1-0 pre-Christmas German Cup bore , expect Bayern to go for the jugular in the first half in search of a comfortable half-time lead against Darmstadt B. If it all runs to plan, Bayern would then engage cruise control in the second half in preparation for the key game against Juventus. It's that simple -- oh and not picking up any fresh injuries, especially at the back, would be awfully nice.
With nearest challengers Borussia Dortmund not in domestic action until Sunday, it's also an excellent opportunity for Bayern to stretch their imposing advantage at the top of the table to double digits, before paying a nervous visit to see the "Old Lady" in Turin.
Mark Lovell covers Bayern Munich for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @LovellLowdown.