Last week in the Bundesliga the biggest question was: What would happen when 6 of the top 7 teams face each other? Well, now we have learned that Schalke 04 emerged as the biggest winners with 2 goalless draws and Wolfsburg as the losers. Round 21 will feature more of a top vs bottom showdown, with neither Bayern, Dortmund or Hertha playing an opponent ranked higher than twelfth. Of course, it’s never that simple as beating Augsburg, and one can always trip up even against Hannover 96, while Stuttgart are anything but a gimme. With that in mind, here are 5 key matches to watch out for, with five burning questions.
- Can the tough tackling midfield of Mainz 05 slow down Leroy Sane and Schalke’s U23 midfield? If you’re wondering what could be intriguing about a Friday night match-up between two teams that are separated by 3 points and 2 goals you have come to the right place. Visitors, Schalke 04 have been searching for an identity under Andre Breitenreiter in the post-Julian Draxler era, but appear to be righting the ship after a shocking loss to lowly Werder opened the Rückrunde for them. They also seem to enjoy winning the homecoming games, as they ruined VfL Wolfsburg’s and Draxler’s return to Gelsenkirchen last week, with a 3-0 victory that was much closer than the scoreline indicated. The shots and expected goals were almost dead even, but as it has often been the case for die Wölfe this season, the result was anything but.Mainz are making their 6th appearance in the Friday night spot and are somehow winning games despite their dynamic duo of Yunus Malli and Yoshinori Muto, who have combined for 15 goals of the team’s 25 goals this season, getting shut out since late November! To make matters worse, the Japanese forward appeared to have torn his LCL and will miss several weeks, according to Bundesliga.com. During, this dry period, Die Nullfünfer have been squeaking out wins (3 wins 1 draw and 2 losses in those 6 games) thanks to some timely goals by attacking midfielders Jairo Samperio (3) and Christian Clemens (2). Defensively, the team has gotten some monster performances by goalkeeper Loris Karius (notably against Gladbach) and oft-injured defender Leon Balogun, who was voted man of the match last week. In midfield, it’s the no-nonsense duo of Danny Latza and Julian Baumgartlinger (the leading tackler in the Bundesliga) that are running the show – sometimes quite literally, as was the case vs. the Foals when they combined to cover 25.8 kms. The pressure will be on these two to stop the budding young midfield quartet (Geis, Goretzka, Sane and Meyer have combined for 13 assists this season) of Schalke – and it will be a tough ask for them, as every English team’s favorite transfer market target Sané and Max Meyer starred in the win over Darmstadt while Johannes Geis scored a beauty of a free kick against Wolfsburg. Speaking of the 22-year-old midfielder: it will be a bit of a homecoming for Geis, as he broke into the Bundesliga with FSV and played 2 full seasons with them from 2013 to July of 2015. The Royal Blues will hope it will certainly be better than Draxler’s and will look to repeat the Hinrunde’s 2-1 win, in which Klaas Jan Huntelaar missed a penalty, as they outshot Mainz 24 to 15. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Schalke have scored 9 goals (1st in the BuLi), while Mainz have 6 on counters, so if you enjoy fast counterattacking soccer with young stars this is definitely the game for you!
- Will VfB Stuttgart’s resurgence run into the Berlin Wall? Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you have probably heard that VfB Stuttgart have been the hottest team in Germany over the past 6 weeks, earning 14 points and taking their season tally to 24. After an incredibly lousy start, that saw them fall behind virtually every match due to individual errors, underperformance (the team was 3rd in total shots taken!), bad luck and miserable coaching, die Schwaben have turned it completely around under Jürgen Kramny ( in 7 games they have 4 wins, while Zorniger managed 3 wins in 13 games). Cutting down on an ineffective pressing style, benching young defender Timo Baumgartl and installing Georg Niedermeier in his spot, as well as signing former Dortmund player Kevin Großkreutz appeared to have somewhat stabilised the defense. Filip Kostic’s zombie like awakenening (a two-time Man of the Match in their opening 2 games in the Rückrunde speedy Gonzalez of a zombie, to be exact) has also been a welcome sight. Midfielder Lukas Rupp is thriving under Kramny and has 3 assists in the last 4 games (plus an excellent midweek goal in the Cup against Dortmund), while captain Christian Gentner has chipped in with 2 goals and an assist over that same time period. In addition, when a team that is 2nd or 3rd in every advanced shot metric, but is fighting for relegation, one can also suspect some statistical regression to the mean. So, it will be smooth sailing for Stuttgart against Hertha, right? Well, not quite, as they will be without leading scorer (9 goals) and best player Daniel Didavi and will be facing fellow 6 game unbeaten team Hertha. Hertha have been a stunning story this year and really since the Pál Dárdai takeover last season, have laid down the blueprint on how to survive relegation. A disciplined team with a hard-nosed attitude, full of tireless worker bees (Vladimir Darida vs Lukas Rupp in the marathon contest will be a fun matchup) the Berliners have made the most of their limited resources and created an efficient, if not the most aesthetically pleasing side. While their reliance on Salomon Kalou’s goalscoring is questionable (currently the team is running some 10 goals over their expected goal numbers!), credit must be given to the Hungarian coach for getting results, despite his team taking the fewest shots in the Bundesliga – at 9.6/pg it’s 61% of Stuttgart’s 15.7. A very strong case could have been made last week, that the team from the capital was the better one against Dortmund and should have earned all 3 points. Unlike Stuttgart, who lost to Dortmund 3-1 in an excellent back and forth game, Hertha have progressed to the semi-final of the German Cup on Thursday. Given that Hertha played its regular starters in that game, it will be interesting to see if fatigue might be a factor on Saturday, but at this point we should question Dárdai at our own peril.
- Can Darmstadt pull off the upset vs a Leverkusen team without Chicharito? After a strong defensive performance that held the mighty Bayern scoreless last weekend, Leverkusen were dealt a couple of blows this week. First, they crashed out of the DFB cup to the enigma, that is Werder Bremen, and to add insult to injury they lost everyone’s favorite Chicharito Hernandez with a muscle tear for several weeks. It’s worth looking back at their Hinrunde encounter, just to see how much has changed in the lives of these two teams. They met on Matchday 4, as Darmstadt took the lead on a stunning Aytac Sulu header (what else?) and hung on to win 1-0, despite die Werkself outshooting them 16 to 5. A guy by the name of Javier Hernandez also came on in the 58th minute to make his first appearance for Bayer, and since then he has had an OK season, so I’m told. For Darmstadt, leading scorer, Sandro Wagner was only a substitute in that game, but has since had 6 of the team’s 21 goals. When you are a team like Darmstadt who has an almost unthinkable 37% possession and plays long balls, you take those 6, plus all 5 of Sulu’s headed ones and bank it. Here are 3 things to look our for on Saturday: 1. This will be the meeting of the set piece kings, where SV98 have a whopping 11 goals (of their 21) to Leverkusen’s 7 from dead ball situations. 2. The aerial battles between Darmstadt twin towers Aytac Sulu and Slobodan Rajkovic (yet another former Chelsea wunderkind trying to revitalize his career in the Bundesliga) and the old workhorse Stefan Kießling should be a treat. 3. Who will score the goals, without Chicharito? The next leading scorer for Bayer is Kießling with 4 and we already talked about Darmstadt’s struggles, who have only scored 5 goals from open play. A goalless draw makes a ton of sense, but Darmstadt have been beating the odds, so couldn’t you see them holding on to all 3 points at home?
- Will Gladbach show that the 5-1 beatdown is the real BMG, or will HSV’s winless game streak reach 7 games and edge them close to relegation? Will the real Mönchengladbach please stand up? The Foals have been impossible to figure out this season, as their 3-0 loss to Hamburg on Matchday 4 was signaling the end of the Lucien Favre era. Since then, Andre Schubert’s cool kids have run amok on the Bundesliga – save for a few hiccups, perhaps attributed to injuries and suspensions – and last week’s thrashing of Werder was as impressive a win as we saw all year. The Foals are finally getting Granit Xhaka back from suspension to partner with newest Bundesliga darling Mahmoud Dahoud and should be favorites to beat HSV. Hamburg have been winless in their last 6 games, and while a few of those losses (to Bayern, and losing on an own goal and an 89th minute goal to Stuttgart) have been unlucky, it’s put up or shut up time for die Rothosen. While, the team picked up Josip Drmic (from Gladbach, incidentally) to bolster its faltering attack (just 22 goals in 20 games), that same move can be seen as desperate, as Drmic was one of the worst forwards in the league this season – and lost his starting spot in Gladbach. To say they have missed him would be a gigantic understatement, as die Fohlen have scored 40 goals, with the excellent Raffael and Lars Stindl combining for 14 goals and 14 assists despite largely playing out of position. With HSV without the suspended center back Johan Djorou and the injured free kick maestro Michael Gregoritsch, perhaps Bruno Labbadia would be happy to earn a draw at home on Sunday.
- Will Bayern be able to open up the league’s stingiest defense over the last 6 weeks in Augsburg (only 3 goals allowed) ? Back on Matchday 4, the great Bayern needed a 90th minute Thomas Müller penalty to overcome Augsburg, in what was otherwise anything but a close game, with Bayern having enjoyed a 27 to 4 shots advantage. Speaking of shots, there should be more of them than in the LMFAO – Lil Jon song , as FCB lead the Bundesliga in shots taken, and FCA concede the most.
The other cliche we can use to describe this match is location, location, location, as Bayern take the most shots in the so-called Danger Zones (zones 1 to 3) by a huge margin, while Augsburg are number 1 in shots outside the box (46% off all their shots come from there), (see images) aka the low percentage (10% and under) ones. That is particularly troubling, when a certain Robert Lewandowski is averaging 6 shots per game and 4 of those are coming from inside the penalty area and almost 1 a game inside the six yard box.
Sure, Bayern will be missing Xabi Alonso, due to the double yellow against Leverkusen and are ravaged by injury, but when your team still has Lewy and Müller supported by Douglas Costa, Kingsley Coman and Arjen Robben, goals should come, unless Marwin Hitz has a monster game. At the other end of the pitch, Bayern’s makeshift defense will once again likely feature the impressively versatile Joshua Kimmich alongside Holger Badstuber and should not experience too much trouble with Raul Bobadilla, who has not scored since early December. Such is life for the Fuggerstadter when your leading score is penalty maestro Paul Verhaegh, who has already scored 5 times from the spot this season. Augsburg fans should hope that defender Konstantinos Stafylidis can repeat this bomb from last week against Ingolstadt, as their strikers are yet to score at home this season….
Thanks to Michael Caley’s excellent advanced statistics which you can find here: