Bayern Munich set for bounce-back vs. Wolfsburg after Juventus slip
Shaken after sloppily letting a two goal Champions League advantage slip at Juventus, league-leaders Bayern Munich return to Bundesliga business with a trip to Wolfsburg.
"It's a very, very important week. We can take a huge step forward," said coach Pep Guardiola at today's press conference.
The Volkswagen-backed side proved the Bavarians nearest "challengers" (using the term loosely) last season, finishing runners-up a mere 10 points in arrears. It's probably no consolation to the rest of the league, but it's the narrowest margin from any of the past three seasons (25 in Jupp Heynckes' treble year and 19 in Pep Guardiola's debut year). It's more of a chasm between the two this season. With a win tomorrow, Bayern (59) will have garnered twice as many points as Wolfsburg (31) this season.
Borussia Dortmund have taken over the mantle as the Bavarians sole rivals this season. BVB host Guardiola's men next Saturday and, despite an impressive season under new coach Thomas Tuchel, languish eight points behind. Bayern have dropped just seven points all season and look well set for an historic fourth title in a row.
The last Bundesliga meeting against Wolfsburg was a memorable one with Robert Lewandowski propelling himself into the Guinness Book of Records with his astounding five-goal blitz in nine minutes. The Polish striker sealed the quickest hat trick in Bundesliga history, the fastest four and five goal burst, as well as the most goals as a substitute with his scoring feats. Don't forget Lewandowski came on at half-time with his side trailing 1-0 in Munich in September.
Pep wouldn't be pushed on whether the Bundesliga's top scorer (22 goals) will start on Saturday. "We'll have to see", the Catalan said.
However, Dieter Hecking's charges will provide a stern challenge on their own patch, having lost just once all season in the league to BVB. Bayern will, no doubt, still have painful memories of their last Bundesliga trip to Wolfsburg when they were caught cold immediately after the winter break. At least there'll be no Kevin De Bruyne to inspire the home side this time around.
The talented Belgian moved to Manchester City, where a current Bayern trainer will take charge next season. Incidentally, that resounding 4-1 win in January 2015 remains big-spending Wolfsburg's only success in 13 attempts against the Bavarians -- losing 11 in total to the tune of five scored and 30 against. Shorn of the services of KDB, the "Wolves" may find themselves hunted down again in the North tomorrow.
Importantly for Bayern, the injury "crisis" shows signs of abating with a few long-term absentees slowly trickling back to full fitness. Franck Ribery may get his first start of the year after impressing as a substitute against Darmstadt and Juventus. The Frenchman could replace Douglas Costa, who has looked short of his best after winter hibernation.
Mario Gotze, an unused sub in Turin, is another star looking for game time as Bayern head into the business end of the season. Guardiola said, "Perhaps he'll play 90 minutes tomorrow," will have been music to the World Cup Final winning goal-scorer's ears.
Medhi Benatia also came on as a substitute in midweek, but Bayern conceded the equaliser a minute later. A mere coincidence perhaps, but the injury-prone Moroccan has to start stringing some minutes together with the crunch second leg against Juventus looming.
Bayern have already pummelled Wolfsburg in their own manor this season, winning 3-1 in the second round of the German Cup in one of the most complete away performances of the campaign.
Saturday's "Dance with the Wolves" sees a reunion with Dante after his summer transfer window departure. Despite Guardiola often wishing that he had "1000 Dantes" in his squad, the central defender never really prospered under the Catalan's tutelage. The Brazilian often found himself the coach's scapegoat for any collective defensive frailty and a move to pastures new was the only logical consequence. Ironically, if Dante had stayed around, he might have been the first name on the team-sheet at the moment, given the dearth of fit central defenders at the club.
Dante, a treble-winner under Heynckes in 2013, is guaranteed a warm welcome by the travelling Bayern faithful.
"It's still very much a special game for me. I've not been gone from Munich too long and I've still got loads of friends there," the popular Brazilian revealed.
Luis Gustavo is another ex-Bayern star who'll be keen to impress against his former side. The Brazilian midfielder proved to be Louis van Gaal's final signing in January 2011 before the Dutchman was unceremoniously shown the door three months later.
It'll be interesting to see how Bayern react to the disappointing final 30 minutes in Turin. Bayern let slip an almost certain Champions League quarterfinal berth, snatching a draw from the clutches of victory with some defensive sloppiness. Coasting after Thomas Muller's opener and a trademark Arjen Robben goal in a brilliant hour, Bayern undid most of the good work with a naïve finale. Midfielder Joshua Kimmich, pressed into service as an emergency centre-half, shouldered much of the blame for the first goal. But, it's unfair to single out the raw 21-year-old for too much criticism. After all, he's still so young and inexperienced and playing out of position.
Manuel Neuer should perhaps reflect on Juve's equaliser. In hindsight, Bayern's keeper would have been better served launching the ball into row Z of the grandstand to relieve heavy Juventus pressure, instead of pleasing his trainer and playing an intricate pass to an under-pressure colleague, in this case skipper Philipp Lahm.
That said, there's no room for doom and gloom. You still have to fancy Bayern's chances of disposing of the "Old Lady." Bayern are riding the crest of a wave at fortress Allianz Arena, with nine wins in a row at home in the European elite competition and a further 11 home victories in a row in the Bundesliga this season. What can go wrong?
Mark Lovell is a Germany-based journalist who covers the Bundesliga for ESPN FC and BBC Sport. Twitter: @LovellLowdown.