The Bundesliga is back! For those of us who have been glancing impatiently at our calendars or watching YouTube highlight reels in desperation, the wait is over. The first weekend of the new footballing year in Germany serves up some good action as Gladbach try to snap Bayern’s winning streak and Dortmund look to return to winning ways.
Gladbach Look to Surprise Bayern
Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach kick off Matchday 18 with a Friday evening tie to savor. The hosting Foals will hope to stymie the leaders and maintain their one-point lead over fourth-placed Borussia Dortmund. Lucien Favre’s side finished the first half of the season strongly, winning six games in a row before drawing against Mainz and Wolfsburg. They have lost just once since September, and boast an impressive home record, with eight wins, one draw, and a +18 goal difference. Their attacking quartet—Juan Arango, Patrick Hermann, Raffael, and Max Kruse—are enough to strike fear into even the hearts of Bayern, with 25 goals and 21 assists between them.
Defensively, Gladbach are also disciplined, maintaining tight lines directed by their Barcelona-bound goalkeeper Ter Stegen. However, they will be without defender Tony Jantschke, whose solid partnership with Martin Stranzl at center back has helped Gladbach maintain their incredible form. His injury will allow Alvaro Dominguez the chance to make his comeback from injury, though Dominguez will be hoping not to concede two handball penalties to Bayern again, as he did in the fall.
Gladbach’s firepower and defensive solidity may not be enough to stop the seemingly invincible Bavarians, but Gladbach will be heartened by the news of Bayern’s shock 3-0 defeat in a friendly against Red Bull Salzburg last weekend. Pep Guardiola shrugged off this defeat by attributing it to his experimentation with new tactics. In the off-season he has trained with only three in defense, deployed Javi Martinez at right-back, and given playing time to 18-year-old talent Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. However, now that the winter break is over, it is likely that the Catalan boss will revert to his effective 4-1-4-1 formation, with Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger being the casualties.
The reverse fixture was an entertaining duel that saw Bayern overcome Gladbach, 3-1. Whether Bayern can repeat that victory remains to be seen, but these 90 minutes are sure to bring the Bundesliga back with a bang.
Borussia Mönchengladbach (4-4-1-1): Ter Stegen—Korb, Dominguez, Stranzl, Wendt—Hermann, Kramer, Xhaka, Arango—Raffael—Kruse
Bayern Munich (4-1-4-1): Neuer—Rafinha, Boateng, Dante, Alaba—Lahm—Kroos, Thiago, Müller, Götze—Mandzukic
Gladbach 2-3 Bayern
Dortmund Look to Return to Winning Ways Against Augsburg
Borussia Dortmund went into the winter break in the worst possible fashion, dropping points in five of their last seven league games and plummeting to fourth place. While much of this was due to injuries and fatigue, the team will be looking to regain their stride and to make a concerted charge towards second. Having had time to rest and regain fitness, and with defender Mats Hummels’ return imminent, BVB should be able to recover their old spark—beginning with Augsburg on Saturday. Despite the long-expected confirmation of his summer transfer to Bayern, striker Robert Lewandowski should be hungry and determined to lead the Dortmund line, flanked by a rejuvenated Marco Reus. Right-back Lukasz Piszczek is fully fit after his long-term injury and gradual reintroduction to the game, and Marcel Schmelzer will be challenging his excellent deputy, Erik Durm, for the starting spot at left-back. Where super-substitute Kevin Großkreutz will play in a fully fit Dortmund side will be a luxury problem for Jürgen Klopp.
When these two teams met in the fall, debutante Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored a hat-trick and led his new team to a flying 4-0 victory. Augsburg will not be so easy to take down this time, however. The Bavarians sit in eighth, having consistently beaten the teams below them and managing to draw heavyweights Gladbach and Hertha BSC. Moreover, Augsburg have consistently played better in the second half of the season than the first in the past few years, improving from only one win in the Hinrunde last year to seven wins to claw their way out of relegation.
Dortmund have struggled against teams that sat deep and refused to attack, and it remains to be seen if Markus Weinzierl will employ this tactic to grind out points away against Jürgen Klopp’s side. Ultimately, however, BVB’s attacking quality and home advantage should prove too much for the visitors.
Borussia Dortmund (4-2-3-1): Weidenfeller—Piszczek, Sokratis, Friedrich, Durm—Bender, Sahin—Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan, Reus—Lewandowski
Augsburg (4-1-4-1): Manninger—Verhaegh, Callsen-Bracker, Klavan, Ostrzolek—Baier—Hahn, Vogt, Altintop, Werner—Mölders
Dortmund 3-1 Augsburg
Stuttgart and Mainz Clash in Mid-Table Battle
Buoyed by the news of teenage sensation Timo Werner’s desire to sign a long-term contract without a release clause, tenth-placed VfB Stuttgart could move within two points of ninth-placed Mainz, with a game in hand, if they can secure a home victory over them on Saturday. The Swabians have been impressive in attack this season but have looked shaky in defense, having scored 29 and conceded 31 goals in 16 games. The 17-year-old Werner has been a revelation, with trainer Thomas Schneider switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 in their last two games to pair the young shooting star with senior striker Vedad Ibisevic. Schneider will likely keep this formation this weekend, which will allow the speedy set-piece expert Alexandru Maxim to play on the wing.
Mainz fans will be eager to see the competitive debuts of their two winter signings: goalkeeper Dario Kreslic from Lokomotiv Moscow and Ja-Cheol Koo from Wolfsburg. The South Korean became the club’s most expensive signing in history last week, at the behest of trainer Thomas Tuchel who called him his “dream signing.” Like Stuttgart, Mainz have also been defensively weak this season, and have a questionable away record, having lost four of their seven matches on the road.
When these two teams last met on the first day of the season, Mainz managed to edge out Stuttgart, 3-2, in a dramatic finish that saw two goals in the last 12 minutes. Another high-scoring duel seems on the cards.
VfB Stuttgart (4-4-2): Ulreich—Schwaab, Niedermeier, Rüdiger, Rausch—Harnik, Leitner, Gentner, Maxim—Werner, Ibisevic
Mainz (4-1-4-1) : Karius—Pospech, Bell, Noveski, Park—Geis— Malli, Müller, Soto, Moting—Okazaki
VfB Stuttgart 3-2 FSV Mainz 05
Elsewhere in the Bundesliga…
VfL Wolfsburg will look to show off new signing Kevin de Bruyne as they host Hannover 96. Bayer Leverkusen travel to the Black Forest to take on SC Freiburg, who seek to distance themselves further from the drop zone. Hertha BSC will hope to pull away from Schalke in the battle for Champions League football as they play Eintracht Frankfurt. Schalke, who are without Julian Draxler and captain Benedikt Höwedes, look to keep pace with the leaders as they go up against Hamburger SV. Finally, Nürnberg take on Hoffenheim, and Werder Bremen play Eintracht Braunschweig.