Sunday evening's game between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich pits two of Germany's leading clubs against one another. Here is how they compare ahead of the clash...
The season so far
Leverkusen have had their fair share of ups and downs this term. Despite a third-place finish under Gerardo Seoane in 2021/22, which earned them UEFA Champions League qualification for just the second time in six campaigns, the Swiss manager was unable to prolong that momentum.
Die Werkself lost 4-3 in the first round of the DFB Cup to third-tier SV Elversberg the weekend before the opening Bundesliga matchday, and followed that up with three consecutive league defeats. By the time Seoane was dismissed at the start of October, Leverkusen were second-bottom, having amassed just five points from eight top-tier fixtures.
In an attempt to turn the tide, the club's hierarchy turned to former Bayern midfielder Xabi Alonso. Although he lacked experience, with a three-year spell at Real Sociedad B his only senior managerial role, he has arrested Leverkusen's poor form and taken them up to ninth in the table.
Since Matchday 14, only Borussia Dortmund (eight) have won more than the BayArena outfit's six matches, while they are on the verge of a first European quarter-final in 15 years after beating Ferencvaros 2-0 in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League last 16. They have now put together a three-match winning run in all competitions and, given they trail sixth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt by just five points with 10 games remaining, another continental adventure is not out of the question.
Watch: Bayer edged Bremen in a five-goal thriller to keep their European hopes alive
On the face of it, it is very much business as usual for Bayern. After 10 successive Bundesliga titles, number 11 is well within their grasp as they lead Dortmund at the summit of the table by two points, while they have quarter-finals in both the DFB Cup and Champions League to look forward to.
However, their progress has not been as serene as they would have liked. A nine-point league lead going into the winter break had been erased by the middle of February - following three winless games to start 2023 - and they now face one of their toughest title defences in recent memory.
Since that early-year blip, though, they have found their groove again, winning each of their last nine games except a 3-2 defeat to bogey side Borussia Mönchengladbach. They are finding their best form just as we approach a crucial period of the campaign, which is ominous for the rest of the division.
Leverkusen's season might have looked very different had Florian Wirtz not been missing for most of it. A cruciate ligament rupture suffered last March kept him out of action until Matchday 16, but that hasn't stopped the 19-year-old from managing four assists in eight Bundesliga appearances. Only Jeremie Frimpong - Bayer's answer to Bayern's incendiary left-back Alphonso Davies - has racked up more among his teammates (six).
Watch: How do Jeremie Frimpong and Alphonso Davies compare?
As Leverkusen defeated Monaco on penalties in their Europa League play-off round tie, Wirtz put in two magnificent performances; scoring once and creating two other strikes across the two legs. Anything is possible for Alonso's side with the teenager available.
The Germany international is far from the only exciting talent on Leverkusen's books. Defences across the Bundesliga are already well aware of Moussa Diaby's frightening speed and technique, and only nine players have scored more than his eight league goals this term. The aforementioned Frimpong is also flourishing, rippling the back of the net on seven occasions despite being a right-back.
In Bayern's case, picking out anyone in particular is tricky. Not because they lack star power, but rather because they possess exceptional talents in abundance. Jamal Musiala has grown in stature since his move to Bavaria in 2020 and continues to get people out of their seats, while Thomas Müller is as decisive and devastating as ever.
Watch: Teen titans Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala face off
Kingsley Coman is also in world-class form, consistently making an impact against the toughest of opponents. He scored the winner away at boyhood club Paris Saint-Germain as Bayern prevailed 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 encounter, while he caused high-flyers Union Berlin all kinds of problems when he netted once and created another in a 3-0 stroll.
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting has stepped out of Robert Lewandowski's shadow to claim the limelight himself this season, but will be missing against Leverkusen due to injury. It's timely then that Sadio Mane is once again fit after a considerable spell on the sidelines, and the Senegal forward is clearly a luxury alternative.
Saturday's match-up promises to be emotional for Alonso, who faces former club Bayern for the first time in the dugout. The Spaniard enjoyed three successful years at the Allianz Arena, winning the Bundesliga in each season and the DFB Cup in 2016. A 4-1 victory over Freiburg in May 2017 was his final outing in professional football, and he has not hidden his admiration for his former employers.
After hanging up his boots, he accepted a coaching role with Real Madrid's U14s, and it wasn't long before he was appointed manager of Real Sociedad's second string, winning promotion to the Segunda B, Spain's second division, for the first time in the team's history.
Their immediate relegation did not deter Leverkusen from swooping to prise him away, and he has already shown himself to be an astute tactician capable of producing results, most often deploying an attacking 3-4-3 formation to get the best out of the many offensive talents at his disposal.
Watch: Xabi Alonso primed for Bayern reunion
Meanwhile, his Bayern counterpart, who was forced to hang up his own boots prematurely due to injury, has been tipped for the very top ever since working wonders at Hoffenheim in his late 20s. Julian Nagelsmann remains the youngest manager in Bundesliga history, although his tender age didn't stop him from leading Die Kraichgauer to a maiden Champions League participation.
It wasn't long before RB Leipzig came calling, and his stock continued to rise in Saxony as they reached the semi-finals of Europe's premier club competition in 2020 - still the club's best-ever showing in the tournament.
It seemed only a matter of time before he would make the step up to Bayern and, when Hansi Flick moved to the German national team, Nagelsmann was his natural successor. Seven titles in 18 months meant Flick's shoes were big ones to fill, and the new man's lack of silverware gave him plenty to prove, but he finally stood on the top step of the Bundesliga podium last season.
With Bayern still fighting on three fronts this term, there is every chance he will add to his personal trophy cabinet in the coming months, and his versatility as he switches between 4-2-3-1, 3-4-2-1 and 4-4-2 set-ups could prove invaluable.
Bayern have often had Leverkusen's number in top-flight meetings between the two. There have been 87 match-ups since the latter's promotion to the Bundesliga in 1980, and the current reigning champions have won 52 of them. Seventeen games have ended in draws, meaning Leverkusen have come out on top a further 17 times.
It hasn't always been one-sided in recent years, though. Between 2018 and 2019, B04 won three in a row and, while they have not triumphed in any of the last six, games between the two have often been exciting. Nagelsmann has a strong record against Sunday's hosts, though, tasting defeat only once in 12 outings.
In September, when Seoane was still in charge, Bayern romped to victory on home soil, with Musiala, Leroy Sane, Müller and Mane each bagging a goal in a 4-0 victory. Alonso will be eager to avoid a repeat of that result as he prepares his side for a clash against familiar faces.
Watch: Highlights of Bayern's Leverkusen mauling in September
The trophy cabinets
Alonso's ultimate goal will be to win trophies, which the club is not accustomed to. They have earned the moniker 'Neverkusen' after coming within touching distance of glory on several occasions, only to see it slip through their fingers at the last.
The end of the 2001/02 campaign was particularly excruciating as, despite going into the final Bundesliga matchday needing only a draw to secure top spot - as well as reaching the finals of the DFB Cup and the Champions League - they ended up empty-handed. That was one of four second-place finishes in the league between 1997 and 2002, and they are still yet to be crowned German champions.
That is not to say they are without memorable moments on the biggest stages. In 1988 they clinched the UEFA Cup, defeating Espanyol on penalties in the two-legged showpiece, while they also won the domestic cup in 1993. However, there is no doubt that they have underachieved.
Bayern's situation could not be more different. Their bulging cabinet includes almost every title there is to win, including a record 31 Bundesliga shields and 20 DFB Cups. They have often been able to transfer their form to European competition, too, taking six European Cup or Champions League trophies back to Munich - only Real Madrid (14) and AC Milan (seven) have more.
They have not gone more than three years without a major trophy since they reached the top flight in 1965, and it will take something special to stop more beer-soaked celebrations in the years to come.
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