Nobody expected this. Bayern Munich’s final match before the Bundesliga’s month-long Winterpause looked like—when we first glimpsed the fixtures in pre-season—a coast against promoted opposition. Instead the visit of RB Leipzig, level with the champions at the top on 36 points, will decide who settles down for Christmas lunch with the honorary title of Herbstmeister, or autumn champions.
As the best home team in Germany so far meets the most prolific point-gathers away from home, something has to give, and it promises to be dramatic.
Leipzig, a young, fit side based on pressing rather than possession, will go to Bavaria full of confidence, as well they should. Their rise has been an object lesson in collective excellence, and they are unlikely to panic or change their game to face Bayern.
If we are just about getting used to Leipzig as the real thing, it doesn’t mean we won’t take a moment and pinch ourselves when considering the speed of their ascent. They were a side who, after all, were promoted from Bundesliga 2 in second place, five points behind champions Freiburg, who sit in a far more realistic 10th place. Even bearing in mind parent company Red Bull’s resources, it’s a situation that takes some absorbing.
Yet if the scenario of Wednesday night is an unlikely one, it is not entirely unprecedented. It recalls Bayern’s final home game before the break in 2008-09, when TSG 1899 Hoffenheim were the visitors to the Allianz Arena. The top-flight first-timers, coached by Ralf Rangnick (who is now, of course, Leipzig’s sporting director), arrived with a similar lack of inferiority complex.
They took the lead through goal machine Vedad Ibisevic, and even after Philipp Lahm’s equaliser, were within touching distance of clinching that Herbstmeister title when Luca Toni broke their hearts with a stoppage-time winner.
Hoffenheim still enjoyed the break on top of the table, by goal difference, after they drew with Schalke 04 the following week and Bayern could only do likewise at Stuttgart, conceding their own stoppage-time goal in the shape of a Sami Khedira equaliser for the Swabians.
That Bayern team, coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, were pretty good at shooting themselves in the foot, of course. He was fired in spring, and it was Wolfsburg who eventually won the title.
Winter was pretty much as good as it got for Rangnick and Hoffenheim. They suffered the huge blow of a season-ending injury to Ibisevic who, having netted 18 times in the first 17 games of the season, ruptured his cruciate knee ligaments in the last friendly match before the resumption of the Bundesliga.
After beating Energie Cottbus in the first game after the winter break, Hoffenheim went 12 Bundesliga matches without a win, and they slipped not only from the title race but from the European places as a whole, ultimately finishing seventh. It was a respectable return, if a disappointing one given the manner in which the season started.
That was a good Hoffenheim side, containing the likes of Demba Ba, Luiz Gustavo and Andreas Beck (now of Besiktas), who have all gone on to do well elsewhere.
The parallels—as previously mentioned in this column when discussing the Leipzig phenomenon—between them and this year’s surprise packages are many, starting with the presence of Rangnick and including the emphasis on spending their substantial transfer budgets mainly on quality youngsters rather than expensive, established talent. The trio above and Carlos Eduardo, who later lost his way after leaving for Rubin Kazan, all fell into this category.
The sense of deja vu from 2008 won’t be lost on central defender Marvin Compper, though. He is one of the old heads in the team at 31 and was in the Hoffenheim XI on that night in December 2008. He had a grandstand view of Toni’s winner too, wrong-footed by Andreas Ibertsberger’s attempted tackle, which allowed the Italy striker to sweep the ball home into the far corner.
Compper will miss out on Wednesday through injury, but as a dressing-room leader, he will surely have already issued a call to arms about the importance of maintaining focus after the upcoming break and attacking the second half of the season hard.
Yet this Leipzig team have taken everything in their stride so far, including their first Bundesliga defeat of the season at coach Ralph Hasenhuttl’s old club, Ingolstadt, and there’s a sense that they should be able to avoid a similar slump to Hoffenheim’s all those years back.
For a start, Leipzig aren’t as reliant on one individual as Hoffenheim were, so even if an injury or two were to hit them, one doesn’t feel that they’d be subject to similar difficulties as the ones the latter experienced after the loss of Ibisevic.
Top scorer Timo Werner has support from all over the park with Marcel Sabitzer, Emil Forsberg and Naby Keita all chipping in. At the back, they have already manfully carried on through a defensive injury crisis. Talent like Davie Selke and Oliver Burke, both used as pinch-hitters but who have only started one Bundesliga game apiece, have plenty left in the tank. There is also the possibility of reinforcement from their sibling club, Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg, which has become a well-trodden route over the last 18 months.
Bayern, unsurprisingly, are taking this seriously. Arjen Robben was rested for the narrow weekend win at Darmstadt in order that he should be fully fresh and firing for the big one. Perhaps an even greater hat tip from the Allianz towards the east are Bayern president Uli Hoeness’ words in praise of Hasenhuttl.
Hoeness said the Austrian is "one of three candidates we would have to think about" if Bayern decided to go for a German-speaking coach when they next appoint, per Kicker (h/t PA Sport, via ESPN FC).
Attempting to destabilise the opposition on the eve of a big game is the ultimate sign of backhanded respect, though Hoeness may well claim with some justification that he is merely stating the obvious. Hasenhuttl is quite excellent, and the whole world knows it.
On the opposite bench, Carlo Ancelotti will be attempting to prove that his Bayern of today have nothing in common with the 2008 vintage, who also plummeted after Christmas. Klinsmann was removed in April 2009 and replaced by Jupp Heynckes, when it looked like missing Champions League qualification was a possibility.
Ancelotti’s side have lacked the intensity of Pep Guardiola’s thus far, and too many more performances like Sunday’s at Darmstadt won’t do.
A good, authoritative display against Leipzig would help quieten dissenting voices. That the occasion demands that of Bayern is about as good a compliment as the visitors could receive in endorsement of their newfound status.