The fixture everyone has been waiting for has arrived: Bayer Leverkusen against Bayern Munich in a game where glory awaits the brave.
The leaders face their immediate chasers but where will the key battles take place and which players might make the difference? bundesliga.com assesses the terrain before battle begins at the BayArena ...
Leading from the back
It's crunch time for team captains Lukáš Hrádecký and Manuel Neuer, with both experienced shot stoppers set to play their respective roles facing the division's deadliest attacks. Leverkusen's No.1 has missed just one game in the Werkself's dramatic push for title glory this term and his 58 saved shots have gone a long way to ensuring Xabi Alonso's men boast the best defensive record in the Bundesliga.
A former DFB Cup winner with Eintracht Frankfurt, Hrádecký's moment of glory in the 2018 showpiece came against Bayern at Berlin's Olympiastadion and the Finnish international will be keen to deny the record champions one more piece of silverware in the form of the Meisterschale this season.
"We are determined to produce a performance and a winning culture that will dominate the whole season," the 34-year-old Bratislava-born goalkeeper said at a Leverkusen training camp at the beginning of the current campaign. How prophetic those words look now as Bayer's brilliant shot stopper gets set for one of the most important games of his distinguished career.
Watch: Manuel Neuer on never giving up ...
His opposite number Neuer is, of course, no stranger to career-defining games. An 11-time Bundesliga winner with Bayern and the competition's record clean-sheet keeper (with 224), there were questions raised as to whether the world-renowned custodian might even make it to this, his 13th season with the Bavarians at all. A leg-break sustained on a skiing trip meant a lengthy spell on the sidelines but, in typical fashion, Neuer brushed off any suggestions he might be ready to quit the game by coming back as strong as ever.
Recently bringing up his appearance record in all competitions to an incredible 500 for Bayern, the one-time Schalke favourite joined Claudio Pizarro in 14th place on the club's all-time Bundesliga appearances list after taking part in his 490th top-flight match against Borussia Mönchengladbach last weekend. As determined as ever to get his hands on the championship trophy this season, Neuer's supreme ball-playing skills as well as his commanding presence between the posts might just make a telling difference in this week's title showdown.
A winner of league titles in three countries now, Dutch supremo De Ligt has shown a cool head in his brave back-line displays at Bayern and his defensive nous will make the 24-year-old difficult to outwit on Saturday. The former Ajax and Juventus man has come through several injury problems this season to clock up ever more game time in the red of Bayern. He featured 31 times in the Bundesliga last term on the way to winning the league in his first season in Germany and that experience will stand to him as he gets set to face Florian Wirtz, Jonas Hofmann, Patrik Schick, and Co. in the opposition attack.
A EURO 2024 hopeful with Germany, Tah will be equally as important to Leverkusen's desires to take what would be a massive three points at the weekend. The ex-Hamburg central defender was front and centre of Bayer's blistering start to the season, scoring in each of his club's opening wins against Leipzig (3-2) and Borussia Mönchengladbach (3-0). He has since added a further two goals to his tally while he currently leads the stats in successful passes from open play (96.32).
Watch: the majestic Matthijs de Ligt
A regular in the centre of a three-man back-line for Alonso's side this term, Tah has come to represent the true grit and determination of B04. "We're all singing from the same hymn sheet, and you can see that on the pitch at the moment," the 27-year-old noted earlier in the season. "Each of us has different strengths but we complement each other brilliantly," he added.
At the heart of the matter
Coach Alonso's outfield leader, Granit Xhaka has previously explained how the tactician channelled his communication through the Swiss midfielder and onto the pitch. The results of the pair's work together have even surprised Xhaka, who noted, "I didn't expect things to work out so well," when asked if all had gone exactly to plan for him since his summer move to the Bundesliga from Premier League side Arsenal.
The fulcrum of this exciting Leverkusen side, Xhaka is calmness personified in his role of in-game organiser-in-chief and he has even amassed so many kilometres during his 19 games that he is a close second on the list of the Bundesliga's most distance covered stat (147 miles). Expect that number to ratchet up significantly when first place hosts second on Saturday and Xhaka looks to conduct from midfield once more.
"People look for me a lot; I have to communicate a lot and there are so many players around me; midfield is always the heart of the team," Xhaka explained. My first six months [in Leverkusen colours] were great and hopefully even better times are coming," the ex-Borussia Mönchengladbach player said.
Bayern coach Thomas Tuchel may opt to line the incedibly versatile Raphaël Guerreiro out in a similarly central position to Xhaka's for the title showdown at the BayArena. The Portuguese schemer will be more than ready, having performed admirably in that area of the pitch in six of his 10 Bundesliga games for the Bavarians.
Going from strength to strength since starting his Bayern career with several injury problems, Guerreiro looks back to being the gleeful player who consistently produced the goods at former side Borussia Dortmund. Scoring the winner at Union Berlin in the teams' rescheduled fixture towards the end of January was one of two Bundesliga goals the EURO 2016 winner with Portugal netted for Bayern this season (the other coming in a 4-2 win against Heidenheim) and Leverkusen will be wise to remain wary of the 30-year-old's threat.
"I'm someone who wants the ball all the time," the lively No. 22 explained shortly after joining the club. "If you don't move, you cannot create chances," he added.
Watch: Guerreiro nets winner against Union Berlin
The BayArena is readying itself for what could be one of the fastest-paced games this season. If we are to be in for an end-to-end, thrill a minute encounter, expect sparks to fly out wide, where pace will rule the day. Leverkusen are the envy of the league for their flying full backs Álex Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong, and little wonder when the pair have brought up a combined 27 goal involvements.
Speed-demon Frimpong is king of the sprints with an unmatched 661 to his name while his five goals and six assists from wide on the right tell a tremendous tale of a player who can sometimes seem untouchable when wheeling up and down the right flank. On the other side, Grimaldo is just as prolific and even boasts a tremendous ability from set-pieces, something Bayern discovered first hand in the team's previous meeting on Matchday 4.
The left-sided Spain international has seven goals and nine assists in his maiden season in the Bundesliga and he was quick to praise his compatriot Alonso for his outstanding numbers this term. "The team and the freedom that Xabi [Alonso] gives me in certain moments mean I have more freedom to score or assist," he said, adding, "I’m enjoying my best form, but I’ll keep on working."
Watch: Every Grimaldo and Sané assist in 2023/24
Indeed, Leverkusen will have to work hard collectively if they are to blunt the pace of Bayern's own flying full-back Alphonso Davies. Racking up over 500 sprints of his own in the Bundesliga, the Canadian Express is the fourth-quickest player in the league, having been clocked at 22.38 mp/h in 2023/24.
A goal and three assists might not match what Leverkusen's full-backs have produced this season but don't let that fool you, for Davies is a player who can sometimes form part of key attacking moves, utilising his slick interchange play with the likes of Leroy Sané, Jamal Musiala and the currently injured Serge Gnabry.
Davies's influence in this game will likely have to extend to making sure the man on the opposite flank is just as up to speed in his Bayern duties. New signing from Galatasaray Sacha Boey declared, "I'm ready," at his unveiling at Bayern last week and the Montreuil native will have taken on board all he learned in his Champions League games against Bayern earlier this season and a Bundesliga debut against Gladbach last weekend to help him fit right in.
"We noticed him because he played very intensely; Sacha stood out with his style, and above all with the energy that he always radiates on the pitch," Bayern sporting director Christoph Freund said of the club's new signing. With attributes like those, the 23-year-old will be fighting hard for a place in Thomas Tuchel's starting line-up on Saturday.
Vote: Who do you think will win the title?
Of course, it's always possible that a single moment of magic from one of a pair of twinkle-toed 20-year-olds could prove to be the game breaker at the weekend and if there are two players who are more than capable of bringing the wow factor, it's Wirtz and Musiala.
Germany internationals both, it sometimes seems that the outrageously gifted pair have been around for an age. Fans far and wide arrive to stadia in their droves often just to see the two footballing technicians in action and what a treat it will be to have them both facing off on the same pitch once more.
A couple of injury problems mean Bayern's attacking midfielder has featured in five fewer Bundesliga games than his Leverkusen counterpart but he has still weighed in with five goals and two assists as Die Rekordmeister have kept in touch at the top.
Watch: The best skills and tricks from Wirtz and Musiala
Wirtz, meanwhile, has produced five goals from his 43 shots while eight assists bring his overall goal involvements up considerably. Included in the one-time Germany U21 European champion's haul was a mesmeric Goal of the Month winner in October and he - along with Musiala - will be rubbing his hands at the prospect of shining brightest at the BayArena on Matchday 21.
Bayern arrive in Leverkusen with the Bundesliga's best striker in Harry Kane. Silence England's record goalscorer on Saturday, and B04 have a big chance. Yet that is far easier said than done, with the 30-year-old blazing a trail at grounds across Germany in his first season.
Kane ended a run of 240 minutes without scoring to net his 23rd Bundesliga goal in just his 19th game against Augsburg on Matchday 19, and he extended that run in last weekend's win with one more goal against the Foals. Breaking records all around him in 2023/24, the Bundesliga's leading marksman appears set to make a significant challenge to Robert Lewandowski's season-best 41 top-tier goals in 2020/21 while he has already roared past last season's Torjägerkanone-winning tally of 16, achieved by Niclas Füllkrug and Christopher Nkunku.
Watch: Kane's insane start to Bundesliga life
What's even more worrying for Leverkusen is the fact that Kane is no tunnel-vision striker, with the Bayern star's added five assists meaning he had 29 goal involvements all told this term.
Until Victor Boniface's call up by Nigeria for the Africa Cup of Nations and subsequent injury setback, Leverkusen had their very own outstanding striker leading the line. The 23-year-old's 10 goals and seven assists in just 16 games aided B04's early title tilt hugely, and his absence against Bayern may be felt.
However, with Schick showing signs of a successful comeback from injury with a first-half hat-trick against Bochum on Matchday 16, the Czech forward - who has scored 47 goals in just 102 appearances in all competitions for the Werkself - will make himself an uncomfortable presence in and around Bayern's defence.
Watch: A look at how Alonso's Leverkusen and Tuchel's Bayern attack
New arrival Borja Iglesias - who debuted for Leverkusen in the 2-0 win at Darmstadt last Saturday - will also be keen to make his case for inclusion, and - judging by his recent spot of self-analysis - could even help to replace some of the attributes that brought Boniface to the fore. "I'm a striker who likes to use his body and waits for the right moment in the box, but I can also make important runs and create space," Bayer's hungry new striker explained.
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