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Bayern Munich

Nagelsmann needs statement victory to prove he can win Bundesliga

It feels like an eternity now, but I vividly remember what I was doing on Feb. 9 of this year. As the final part of a frantic two-week spell broadcasting matches up and down Germany, I found myself on very familiar terrain at the spaceship-like Allianz Arena to the north of Munich.

The planets had aligned in a way that made the Bayern Munich vs. RB Leipzig‘s Sunday night showdown carry extra weight in the Bundesliga title race. The Bavarian establishment were taking on the upstarts with lofty aspirations from the East and just a solitary point between the sides in a true top-of-the-table Spitzenspiel.

In fact, questions were beginning to be asked of Leipzig, who had slipped from their perch. Leaders going into the winter break, in the span of 10 days they had fallen twice in the league and again in the cup to Eintracht Frankfurt, in addition to eking out a 2-2 draw with Borussia Monchengladbach. The pressure was palpable.

While the game allowed us to compare super strikers Robert Lewandowski and Timo Werner, it ended up being a night for defensive heroics from Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano. Working from the commentary position in the stadium with former Germany goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, time and again we singled out the young France international for special praise as he successfully went toe-to-toe (and head-to-head) with Lewandowski, the best striker in the business.

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It was a strange game in that Bayern controlled it, but Leipzig created arguably the best chances; both Marcel Sabitzer and Werner fluffed their lines with the opening goal beckoning early in the second half. A 0-0 draw was a reasonable result for both sides, but it left me with the feeling that Leipzig needed to do more on a substantive level.

That need to make a statement takes us to the crux of the historical problem for Leipzig going into Saturday’s encounter (12:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). They’ve yet to breach the Bayern defence in four previous Bundesliga visits, although an optimist would say the men from Sachsen have at least shown an improvement with each passing match.

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Four years ago, Leipzig, under then-manager Ralph Hasenhuttl in their maiden top-flight campaign, knew they could jump ahead of Bayern in the table. However, they barely laid a glove on the Rekordmeister in a limp 3-0 defeat, not helped by Emil Forsberg‘s red card. The trend is their friend, I suppose, because since then, they’ve lost 2-0 and 1-0 away to Bayern before February’s scoreless stalemate. But if Leipzig are to pose a genuine Meisterschale challenge to Bayern, somewhere along the line they must enter the belly of the beast and inflict damage.

I recall thinking 18 months ago, when the sides met in the DFB-Pokal final in Berlin, that maybe it was Leipzig’s time. Instead, Bayern strolled to a relatively comfortable 3-0 success, securing a domestic double for Niko Kovac and his charges. Approaching this weekend’s encounter, Leipzig, now in their second season under Julian Nagelsmann, have a few things going for them.

For starters, Bayern have been grinding it out in the Bundesliga recently rather than sweeping opponents aside. Thomas Muller, in a delightful conversation with colleague Archie Rhind-Tutt, summed it up by describing winning ugly in Stuttgart as the German equivalent of doing it “on a windy day in Stoke, although Stuttgart is not Stoke.” Indeed it’s not, but we grasped his broader point: amid a crowded fixture list for the leading clubs with games every three or four days, you can’t be expected to scale impressive heights every time.

If there’s a Bayern weakness to be exploited, I can’t help feeling that it is to be found at the back — specifically on the right. Benjamin Pavard has made an inauspicious start to the campaign and first reserve Bouna Sarr is still finding his feet at his new team. This will be grist to the mill of Leipzig’s best outfield player this season, the indefatigable Angelino. Although used as a wing-back on the left, he’s their top league scorer with four goals, adding to his haul last week in a rather untidy win against Bielefeld. Granted, his performances had dipped a bit prior to that, but he is a constant menace, particularly going forward. Bayern will need a special plan to contain him down that side.

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This game sees the best attack (Bayern) take on the most proficient defence (Leipzig). Nagelsmann’s side know how to keep opponents quiet, led by goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, Upamecano, Willi Orban and Marcel Halstenberg. When players are missing, there are multiple cover options. Some will rightly bill this as Upamecano vs. Lewandowski once more, but there will be more nuance than that.

My questions have more to do with higher up the pitch. Dani Olmo and Forsberg can dazzle with their assured technical games but Alexander Sorloth has yet to fire on all cylinders through the middle of the attack in the Bundesliga, though he did play the “super sub” role to perfection in Leipzig’s Champions League thriller on Wednesday night in Turkey. I’d still prefer to see Yussuf Poulsen get the start given his know-how at this level and his ability to lead the line.

Funny enough, the expectation that Bayern will have a lot more of the ball should actually play into RB Leipzig’s hands. Yes, they have evolved into a better possession side since Nagelsmann took over, yet they remain devastating as obsessive counter-pressers. Bayern’s high line can leave them vulnerable against a team well-versed in the fine arts of timing such vertical maneuvers.

My gut still tells me Leipzig need more than simply to match Bayern if a title is genuinely within their compass. Saturday is the acid test, especially against a well-rested Lewandowski & Co., many of whom were spared the midweek trip to Atletico Madrid with their Champions League last-16 spot already secured. It will tell us a lot about Nagelsmann’s men and their ability to make it happen against the very best when it really matters.

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