The stakes could not be higher during the late Saturday kickoff in the Bundesliga's 27th round. If Bayern München can dispatch their last remaining legitimate title challengers, RB Leipzig, the German record champions will open up a seven-point-lead at the top of the table. The title race would effectively be over.
The international break rendered matters more interesting still as the two clubs could not have had more diametrically opposite luck with respect to the players they released for national team duty. Both coaches spoke on their recent fortunes at Friday press conferences.
|Julian Nagelsmann.||Photo: GEPA Pictures/Sven Sonntag|
The loss of Robert Lewandowski came at the worst possible time for FCB trainer Hansi Flick. Already without Alphonso Davies and Jerome Boateng due to suspension, the head-coach of the German record champions must dig deeper into the depth chart of his squad; something he's been repeatedly reluctant to do all season.
Flick did his utmost to project calm during his Friday presser. He told reporters that he "wasn't concerned with the situation" and reiterated that he could select a strong-enough XI despite the notable absences.
Though the 56-year-old remained mum on who Lewandowski might be replaced, it's quite possible that his former DFB colleague Joachim Löw provided Flick an adequate blueprint for how to deal with the situation. Serge Gnabry started alone up top as lead striker in two of the three recent German national team games. He could comfortably slide into that role for his club team.
Regarding the absence of Boateng and Davies, Flick offered more specifics. Niklas Süle's recent injury prevented him from taking part in full team training sessions. Bayern's head-coach nevertheless conveyed that he felt the 25-year-old would be fit enough to start. Flick committed firmly to Davies' replacement, saying that Lucas Hernandez will "definitely start" in the left-fullback role.
On the other side of the divide, Julian Nagelsmann could only gush about the splendidly the international break had gone for some of his key players. Striker Alexander Sørloth found the back of the net for his native Norway. Winger Justin Kluivert actually scored against Germany in the UEFA U-21 European Championship. Perhaps most significantly, offensive utility-man Dani Olmo tallied twice on national team duty for Spain.
"I'm always happy when players come back as goalscorers and are healthy," Nagelsmann noted cheerfully at his own Friday presser, "I'm convinced that we'll play a great game."
Naglesmann still must make do without his preferred left-wing back Angelino (in the sixth week of recovery from a muscle tear) and buccaneering fullback Marcel Halstenberg (still in quarantine after a positive COVID test), but these absences didn't appear to faze him much. The 32-year-old trainer did emphasize that the German giants were not be underestimated, irrespective of what state their first string found themselves in.
"They still have a world-class team," Nagelsmann stressed, "It's basically the case that Bayern handle these matches extremely well and always put in top performances when opponents test their limits."
With that statement, Leipzig's trainer effectively managed to sum up how the record-champions have responded to adversity this season. Earlier in the year, the Bavarians went eight fixtures unbeaten despite conceding the first goal in every game. Recently, the mighty German giants completed dominated Borussia Dortmund with a 4-2 comeback victory after falling behind 0-2 in the opening nine minutes.
Flick's high-press/high-risk style often allows opposing teams to deliver a quick punch, but the angry "Bayerische Bär" always seems to come roaring back off the ropes.
"If we don't win, the season isn't over yet," Naglesmann noted, nevertheless conceding, "but the title race probably is."