So you think Bayern Munich are inevitably bound to come thundering back to reclaim the Bundesliga crown that has been theirs since 2013? Perhaps, but don't bet on it just yet, with leaders Borussia Dortmund and a chasing pack including RB Leipzig and Borussia Mönchengladbach set to make this one of the most gripping title races in recent years.
Borussia Dortmund (1st, 50 points)
The story so far
While there was certainly an air of optimism at Dortmund over the summer following the arrival of Lucien Favre as head coach, few BVB fans would dared to dream that their side would be five points clear at the top 21 games into the campaign. Two draws from their opening four league games did little to hint as much, but 13 wins from their subsequent 16 Bundesliga outings allowed them to pull away from the pack.
A new-look defence marshalled by Manuel Akanji and Abdou Diallo has kept things tight at the back, while captain Marco Reus has his best record yet for Dortmund with 13 goals in 19 games, and six assists. Add into the mix the lethal talents of Jadon Sancho, who has made a starting berth his own thanks to his seven goals and nine assists, and supersub Paco Alcacer, who is almost guaranteed to find the net whenever he plays - netting 10 of his 12 goals as a substitute - and you have an irresistible frontline.
Watch: Dortmund planning to stay top
Reus, no question. Captain and leader both and off the field of a youthful Dortmund side, Favre's men invariably hit their stride when the Germany international is on the pitch. Axel Witsel is the only BVB outfielder to play more minutes this term (1,793) than the 29-year-old (1663), which is due to two niggling injuries, and Reus has a knack of scoring when it matters in the big games: he has found the net against Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen, Gladbach and Bayern, as well as against Monaco in the UEFA Champions League.
One to watch
You could pretty much put a blindfold on and draw any number of suitable names out of a Dortmund-shaped hat, but Sancho is arguably the main difference-maker. He seems to have helped himself to an XXL-portion of stardust this season and his guile and ability to make the right decision in the final third have proved decisive on a number of occasions already this season. It is telling that in three of the five games Dortmund dropped points this term, Sancho started on the bench.
- Matchday 28 – Bayern (away)
- Matchday 31 – Schalke (away)
- Matchday 34 - Gladbach (away)
Watch: What makes Jadon Sancho so good?
Bayern Munich (2nd, 45 points)
The story so far
Bayern looked set to run away with things in the early part of the season, their 5-0 Supercup thrashing over Eintracht Frankfurt an ominous marker in August, before head coach Niko Kovac won his first four Bundesliga games in the Allianz Arena hotseat to sit pretty at the summit.
However, injuries to key players, including James Rodriguez, Kingsley Coman, Corentin Tolisso, Serge Gnabry and Arjen Robben, among others, interrupted their flow. The Bavarians had an autumnal wobble, surprisingly dropping points at home to Augsburg (1-1), Freiburg (1-1) and Fortuna Düsseldorf (3-3), as well as losing to Hertha Berlin, Gladbach and Dortmund. Seven straight wins closed the gap, before Bayer Leverkusen threw a proverbial spanner in the works on Matchday 20, but the champions bounced back the following week at home to Schalke to take advantage of Dortmund's slip against Hoffenheim, cutting the gap at the top to an encouraging five points.
Bayern's enviable array of attacking options guarantees they will always score goals, but they have been uncharacteristically vulnerable at the back at times this season. As such, the increasingly important role of Niklas Süle in defence – he has played more minutes than World Cup winners and fellow centre-backs Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels this term – could prove pivotal in mounting a successful title tilt.
One to watch
Having long wowed fans in the MLS, Alphonso Davies is now set to grace the Bundesliga with his pace, trickery and keen eye for goal. He made his debut in the 4-1 win over VfB Stuttgart and with veteran wingers Robben and Franck Ribery likely to be used sparingly as they recover from injury and the games come thick and fast over the coming months, the Canadian's youthful zest will inject an extra dose of unpredictability to Bayern's attacks.
- Matchday 24 – Gladbach (away)
- Matchday 28 – Dortmund (home)
- Matchday 33 – Leipzig (away)
Borussia Mönchengladbach (3rd, 42 points)
The story so far
Dieter Hecking's men had been the only side in the league with a perfect home record this term after Matchday 20 with nine wins from as many games, but they fell one short of setting a new club record with a humbling 3-0 defeat to Hertha Berlin on Matchday 21. Nevertheless, if Gladbach could reproduce that kind of form away from home they would be in pole position right now, so an improvement on their travels (W4 D3 L4) would certainly bolster their chances of winning a first Bundesliga title since 1977.
The Foals have the second-best defence in Germany in 2018/19, conceding just 21 times overall, while Yann Sommer has kept a joint league-high 10 clean sheets with Leipzig's Peter Gulacsi. With no European competition to drain their energy, Thorgan Hazard, Lars Stindl and Co. can focus their efforts on picking up a head of steam in the business end of the season.
Watch: Gladbach won 3-0 at Bayern Munich on Matchday 7
Hazard appears to have taken his game to another level this season, the 25-year-old shouldering greater attacking responsibility in the injury-enforced absences of Stindl and Raffael. The Belgium international already has nine goals and seven assists in the Bundesliga this term, putting him on course to break his personal single-season best (10 goals) set in 2017/18.
One to watch
Hands up if you'd heard of Florian Neuhaus before the start of the season? Don't worry, not many other people had either. The 21-year-old had an influential role in helping Fortuna Düsseldorf gain promotion last season and he has carried on where he left off, scoring two and providing a whopping seven assists. His creativity and pinpoint passing could yet propel the Foals further up the table.
- Matchday 24 – Bayern (home)
- Matchday 30 – Leipzig (home)
- Matchday 34 – Dortmund (away)
RB Leipzig (4th, 38 points)
The story so far
Ralf Rangnick took temporary charge of the first team at the start of the season – keeping the seat warm for Julian Nagelsmann in 2019/20 – and his side had already played five UEFA Europa League qualifying games by the time the Bundesliga kicked off in August. That could go someway to explaining just one win in their first four league assignments.
Results soon picked up, however. Leipzig went 10 matches unbeaten at one point and made it as far as Matchday 18 before losing at home - to Dortmund - for the first time, while young defenders Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate are the new first choice centre-backs in a team with the best defensive record in the Bundesliga (18 goals conceded). Timo Werner leads the way at the other end of the pitch with 11 goals, while Yussuf Poulsen is close behind with a personal best of 10.
If Leipzig were perhaps a touch predictable up front last season – not that stopping Werner is ever an easy task – Poulsen's improvement this term has given them an added edge. The 6'4" Denmark international has always been an ideal foil for Werner, skilled as he is at holding the ball up and keeping defenders occupied, but his 10 goals and two assists so far are testament to a more ruthless killer instinct that has made Leipzig all the more dangerous.
One to watch
A dynamic, box-to-box midfielder adept at breaking up attacks and launching counters in the same swift motion, Tyler Adams is an intriguing addition to the Leipzig midfield. The 19-year-old arrives from the New York Red Bulls and promises to add extra drive to the side just five points off second place, as he proved on his debut against Düsseldorf.
- Matchday 28 – Leverkusen (away)
- Matchday 30 – Gladbach (away)
- Matchday 33 - Bayern (home)
5 reasons Bayern will beat Man Utd
Bayern may be certain of finishing top of Group A, but they will be determined to sign off in style with victory at Old Trafford.
How do Dortmund and Leipzig stack up?
Marco Reus and BVB head into Saturday's tantalising late kick-off with Xavi's Leipzig separated by a point and a place in the Bundesliga table as fifth hosts fourth.
Füllkrug inspires stirring Dortmund comeback against Gladbach
Niclas Füllkrug scored one and made another as Dortmund recovered from 2-0 down to beat Gladbach in a thriller at the Signal Iduna Park.