Bayer Leverkusen vs. Bayern Munich: 5 Key Battles to Watch
The Bundesliga's first- and third-placed teams face off on Saturday as league leaders Bayern Munich visit the BayArena to take on Leverkusen.
The Bavarian giants have built a commanding 20-point lead over second-placed Dortmund in the league table and could theoretically wrap up the title by month's end.
Indeed, Bayern have been nearly unstoppable this season. The one blemish on an otherwise sparkling Bundesliga campaign is a 1-2 home loss on October 28. Incidentally, their opponents on that day were Leverkusen.
The Werkself beat Champions League winners Chelsea last season, and they now have a chance to do the double against one of this season's favorites to win Europe's most coveted club trophy. They will play at home, but it will be a very difficult task nonetheless against a Bayern side that have conceded just once away from home, and are undefeated with 11 wins in 12 matches on the road.
There will be some key battles in store on the day, the outcomes of which could well decide the game. Read on for an analysis of the most important head-to-head contests.
Andre Schurrle vs. Philipp Lahm
Germany international colleagues Andre Schurrle and Philipp Lahm face off on the wing in perhaps the most critical head-to-head battle of the match.
Though somewhat inconsistent, the winger is perhaps Leverkusen's most dangerous player, and his skill and shooting range make him capable of deciding games on his own.
He will be especially motivated on Saturday: given Leverkusen's absence in the Champions League this season, matches against Bayern are chances for him to show himself as a worthy transfer target. Chelsea, who reportedly had a bid rejected by Leverkusen last summer were believed to be interested in the player as recently as November.
A 96-times-capped Germany international and the captain of his club and country, Philipp Lahm needs no introduction. The 29-year-old is tremendously experienced and is in the form of his life. Not only a rock at the back, he delivered two assists last week to bring his Bundesliga season tally to nine, a joint-league high.
Lahm will be responsible for containing Schurrle, but it's entirely possible that as the match progresses it will be more a matter of Schurrle trying to contain him.
Philipp Wollscheid vs. Mario Mandzukic
Perhaps the best German player to never be capped by any of the DFB's main competitive youth teams (U17, U19 and U21) is Leverkusen defender Philipp Wollscheid. A rare talent to come from the Saarland, the 24-year-old has been one of the Bundesliga's best defenders in the last two years.
At 1.94 meters, Wollscheid is an imposing player in the air and on the ground. He combines an impressive physique with good technical defending skills, having won 65.5 percent of his challenges this season. All this, and he's not half-bad with the ball at his feet.
Since joining Bayern last summer, Mario Mandzukic has been a revelation. Originally signed to serve as backup for Mario Gomez, the Croatia international took his chances while the German was sidelined with an ankle injury and hasn't yet relinquished his starting spot.
With 15 goals to his name, Mandzukic is the third-most prolific scorer in the Bundesliga this season. His physical presence inside the penalty box has proven too much for most defenders to contend with, but on Saturday he will square off against a very sturdy defender in Wollscheid.
Stefan Kiessling vs. Dante
Stefan Kiessling has started off 2013 where he left off in 2012, when he was the Bundesliga's top scorer for the calendar year. The 29-year-old has scored four goals and given five assists since the winter break and is currently just a goal behind Robert Lewandowski among the top scorers in the German top flight.
With Miroslav Klose in the twilight of his career and Mario Gomez rarely playing, Kiessling has an off-chance of finding his way into Joachim Low's Germany squad ahead of the 2014 World Cup—but only if he produces in big games. Bayern are tremendously difficult to score against, but Kiessling will certainly be motivated to score.
Dante perhaps might be the biggest revelation in Europe this season. The center-back has played in nearly every game for Bayern as the Bundesliga leaders have conceded just 10 goals in 25 domestic matches. His absence was sorely felt last weekend, when die Roten conceded twice at home to Fortuna Dusseldorf.
Although he was rested last weekend, there is no doubt Dante will be back in action to face Leverkusen. The German giants will need all hands on deck to stop their opponents' formidable attack, but the return of Dante to the center of defense will renew their confidence.
Daniel Carvajal vs. Franck Ribery
Alongside Philipp Wollscheid, the second important newcomer to the Leverkusen defense this season has been Daniel Carvajal. The Spaniard has, behind Bayern's Philipp Lahm, arguably been the second-best right-back in the Bundesliga.
Carvajal is good at the back and excellent in attack. His defensive credentials will certainly be tested on Saturday, however, as he takes on one of the very best wingers in the world.
Franck Ribery has for years been the focal point of the Bayern attack, and the French winger will again be a key player as Bayern take on Leverkusen. The 29-year-old missed Wednesday's Champions League clash with Arsenal due to an ankle injury but has a good chance of returning for Saturday's clash with Leverkusen.
Ribery scored for just the second time of the calendar year last week and will be aiming to hit a rich vein of form as the most important matches of the season approach. The winger has lost a bit of his edge as of late, but his class usually finds a way to come out against strong Bundesliga teams.
Lars Bender vs. Bastian Schweinsteiger
As important as the battles on the wings and centers of attack and defense are, perhaps the most influential struggle on Saturday will take place in the center of the park. The team that controls the midfield—both in attack and defense—often is the team that wins the match.
Leverkusen have a strong central-midfield trio in Lars Bender, Stefan Reinartz and Simon Rolfes. The best and most versatile of the three is certainly Bender, who can attack and defend, and he runs his socks off every game.
23-year-old Bender, a native of southern Bavaria and former 1860 Munich player, will come up against a very strong Bayern midfield unit that may be the best in the world right now. Heroes are made in such matches, though, and perhaps on Saturday the Germany international will take the next step in his career.
Whereas Bender is the future, Bastian Schweinsteiger is the past and present of the Germany central midfield. Like Philipp Lahm, the 28-year-old and vice-captain of his club and country has hit peak form in recent games.
Schweinsteiger has, quite frankly, been everywhere in attack and defense. He's taken responsibility on his shoulders to be a difference-maker and has come up aces time and time again. And, having missed the Arsenal clash due to suspension, he will be fresh and ready to play on Saturday.