Bayern likely to rotate vs. Mainz given Dortmund test next weekend
The games keep coming thick and fast for treble-seeking Bayern Munich as the Bundesliga league-leaders host Mainz on Wednesday. Expect Pep Guardiola to wave the "rotation" wand in midweek against their fifth-placed opponents, especially as Bayern travel to Borussia Dortmund for a top-of-the-table clash next Saturday.
All the recent talk has centred on Bayern's central defensive problems with Holger Badstuber, Javi Martinez and Jerome Boateng all missing through injury. But, as we witnessed with another clean sheet in Wolfsburg at the weekend, these major cracks in defence can easily be papered over, at least in the Bundesliga. Makeshift central defenders Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba continue to fill the void with aplomb.
That said, an injury to either Manuel Neuer or Robert Lewandowski would be an entirely different proposition and could potentially be very destructive to Bayern's hopes of silverware, particularly in Europe. Neuer and Lewandowski are simply irreplaceable.
Guardiola waxed lyrical about Franck Ribery's performance at the weekend -- "Ribery was crucial with his quality in one-on-ones." After impressing once again as a substitute, the effervescent 32-year-old Frenchman may be rewarded with a first start of the year in front of his adoring Munich faithful. Ribery could replace Brazilian Douglas Costa, who is still searching for his 2015 form after the winter break.
While Ribery has caught the eye coming off the bench in three straight games, Mario Gotze was an unused sub in each and every one. Guardiola's pledge that "perhaps Gotze will play 90 minutes" proved empty as he once again languished on the bench against Wolfsburg. Rest assured, given his lack of progress under Guardiola, Gotze is one player that won't be accompanying the Catalan to Manchester City. However, Gotze will be chomping at the bit to end his latest spell of bench-warming against Mainz.
Injury-prone Moroccan Medhi Benatia, another unused substitute at the weekend, urgently needs some game time with the Champions League return leg against Juventus looming. However, the more games Kimmich and Alaba line up together in central defence, the more likely it is that Guardiola will give them the nod to start against the Serie A giants. Serdar Tasci, on loan from Spartak Moscow, looks set to remain a 53-minute central defensive experiment after bungling his recent audition against Darmstadt.
The weekend game itself had some positives. Bayern celebrated their 116th birthday in fine style with a 2-0 win in Wolfsburg at the weekend to retain their cosy eight-point advantage over Borussia Dortmund at the top of the table.
After a goalless first half, French winger Kingsley Coman broke the deadlock on 66 minutes, stabbing home a crucial opener. After finding the scoresheet for the first time since November, 19-year-old Coman became the first Bayern teenager to score four Bundesliga goals since Bastian Schweinsteiger back in 2003-04. If Coman can look back in 15 years on anything remotely near the stellar career that "Schweini" has enjoyed, the youngster will have done very well.
Unlike last week's game at Juve, a 2-0 lead against Wolfsburg proved to be secure though the Bavarians had Manuel Neuer to thank for keeping the hungry "Wolves" at bay. Germany's No. 1 was absolutely impenetrable on his 150th appearance for the club, sealing his 84th clean sheet with a string of fine stops to deny international teammates Max Kruse and Julian Draxler.
Disappointingly, there were none of the "five goals in nine minutes" heroics from Robert Lewandowski this time around but the Polish striker did grab an obligatory goal, his sixth of the season in the league against Wolfsburg, doubling the lead with an instinctive flick into the corner of the net to seal the points. The Bundesliga's top scorer (23 goals) has now notched 33 in 34 matches for Bayern in all competitions this season.
Bayern have still only dropped just seven points all season and remain eight clear of nearest challengers BVB, who they meet in a mouth-watering clash next Saturday. It can't be a title decider as we haven't actually had a race, but Bayern will be looking to go into the modern-day Klassiker with their current lead intact. Should they then avoid defeat in Dortmund, a historic fourth title on the trot seems a mere formality.
But first up, Bayern host Mainz 05 in "English Week." As befits their name, the visitors are currently riding high in fifth spot but trail Bayern by some 26 points after only 23 games. Bayern will bank on their home form this season with 11 consecutive Bundesliga wins at Fortress Allianz Arena. Anything other than a routine victory would be a major surprise.
Mark Lovell covers Bayern Munich for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @LovellLowdown.