Bayern Munich face Bayer Leverkusen with subplots abounding in Bavaria
League leaders Bayern Munich face fourth-placed Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga's "Match of the Day" on Saturday. Bayern beat Hoffenheim 2-0 last weekend to secure a 17th win in 19 league games and restore a comfortable eight-point advantage over nearest challengers Borussia Dortmund at the top of the table.
Leverkusen languish a record 21 points behind reigning champions Bayern. Never has the chasm between top and fourth been greater in the history of the Bundesliga. Perennial underachievers Leverkusen have, rather cruelly, been christened "Neverkusen" for their inability to turn their slick passing football into titles and silverware. Backed by pharmaceutical giants Bayer, "die Werkself" have been inspired of late by the mesmerising goal-scoring form of Javier Hernandez. The Mexican striker, deemed surplus to requirements by ex-Bayern coach Louis van Gaal at Manchester United, has lit up the Bundesliga with 13 goals in 16 appearances since his arrival from the Premier League.
Of course, Bayern have their own in-form lethal scoring machine to call on in the shape of Robert Lewandowski. It will be interesting to see if anyone other than the Poland international can find the net for the Bavarians on Saturday on the Rhein. Lewandowski has scored all four Bayern goals since returning from winter hibernation. Braces on successive weekends have boosted his goal tally to 19 in 16 starts -- already two more than he managed during the whole of the last season. Who can forget his two magical substitute appearances, scoring the winner for 10-man Bayern against Hoffenheim in the second game of the season, and that record-breaking five-goal blitz in nine second-half minutes to stun Wolfsburg in September?
Bayern have won only once on their previous six visits to Leverkusen, when a late Philipp Wollscheid (now of Stoke City) own goal turned the tide for the Bavarians in Jupp Heynckes' glorious treble-winning 2013 season.
Leverkusen comfortably saw off a woefully understrength Bayern last May when the Bavarians had already been crowned champions and had one eye on the ultimately unsuccessful Champions League semifinal against Barcelona. The likes of Dante, Rico Strieder, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mitchell Weiser, Claudio Pizarro and Gianluca Gaudino started for Bayern. All have since departed the club -- sold or farmed out on loan.
Last week, the Munich Mole revealed that the atmosphere was "not good" in the Bayern inner sanctum. This week, Bayern were not amused by less than flattering allegations in German magazine Sport Bild about Arturo Vidal's alleged nocturnal refuelling activities. The Chilean refuted the story via Twitter and the club are also said to be taking legal action.
Director of football Matthias Sammer believes it's part of a media campaign-conspiracy theory aimed at jeopardising Bayern's season and injecting some excitement into the title race. The fiery Sammer was bullish on the outcome: "I can assure [the media] though, you will achieve the opposite. We'll close ranks. We won't just accept it; it'll make us even more united."
Sammer continued: "We can rewrite history this season. I'm not talking about the Champions League, nor the German Cup -- but the magic Four," he said holding four fingers in the air. No club has ever won four Bundesliga titles in a row. After saying that they wouldn't react in the transfer window, Bayern decided to make an SOS signing in the shape of Serdar Tasci. The 28-year-old ex-Stuttgart defender was brought in on loan from Spartak Moscow as cover for Jerome Boateng and Javi Martinez, who were both recently injured.
And suddenly being left with the unenviable prospect of having the injury-prone Holger Badstuber as the only fit central defender, Bayern perhaps wisely decided to delve into the transfer market.
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But you could not make it up as emergency signing Tasci was immediately struck down by the Bayern injury jinx. The 14-time German international suffered a mild concussion in training after a clash of heads and is already doubtful to be fit for the weekend. Tasci was being treated and had to miss his own unveiling as a Bayern player. Rumours abound that Moroccan Medhi Benatia was all set to depart Bayern but for the sudden injuries to Boateng and Martinez. Bayern now need the Moroccan to show why they paid €26 million to Roma for his services. He should be back in the next fortnight, injury permitting, of course.
And to close, the world's worst-kept secret finally broke this week that Pep Guardiola would succeed Manuel Pellegrini as Manchester City manager this summer. Much to the dismay of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United fans, the sway of having buddies Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Sorrano already installed at the Etihad seems to have been a key factor in Pep taking the Premier League plunge.
The Catalan will be remembered fondly in Bavaria, provided he wins the Champions League in his final term. What's the problem?
Mark Lovell is a Germany-based journalist who covers the Bundesliga for ESPN FC and BBC Sport. Twitter: @LovellLowdown.