All eyes will be fixed on Borussia-Park on Saturday (kick-off 6.30pm CET/5.30pm GMT/12.30pm ET) when second-placed Bayern Munich take on third-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach in what may prove a decisive fixture in both the Bundesliga title race and the hunt for Europe.
But where will this tantalising fixture be won and lost? bundesliga.com explores the key battles that will rage in Gladbach this weekend.
Yann Sommer vs. Manuel Neuer
Watch: Bundesliga legend Oliver Kahn analyses Neuer and Sommer
No goalkeeper has kept more clean sheets this season than Sommer, the 30-year-old Swiss stopper shutting out the opposition in 10 of 23 matches. Peter Gulacsi is the one man who can boast as many; with 20 goals conceded, RB Leipzig are the only team to have shipped fewer than Gladbach (25). However, it has been a standout campaign for Sommer, who is on course to replicate – or better – a return of 15 clean sheets in his first year at Gladbach, when the Foals clinched third place. Sound familiar?
Neuer’s seven blanks are bettered only by Sommer, Gulacsi and Wolfsburg's Koen Casteels (8) but the Germany No.1 will see it as a figure to improve, such are the enormously high standards he holds himself to. The 25 goals Bayern have let in this term are just three fewer than the 28 put past them over the entirety of 2017/18, when Sven Ulreich deputised for Neuer; the 32-year-old was sidelined due to a broken metatarsal in his right foot.
The Bundesliga’s most immovable object for 13 years, Neuer has won everything there is to win and is arguably the greatest keeper of his generation, so he will be out to reassert his supremacy against Sommer’s Gladbach. And such are both team’s riches in attack, a clean sheet could go a long way towards settling the outcome.
Matthias Ginter vs. Robert Lewandowski
The 6’2” Gladbach centre-back has been a revelation since making the move from Borussia Dortmund, forming an excellent partnership with Nico Elvedi in front of Sommer. It is no mean feat to deny a team boasting Lewandowski, Thomas Müller, James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben, but the pair managed to shut Bayern out in Gladbach’s 3-0 victory at the Allianz Arena, one of only two occasions Bayern have failed to score in a 2018/19 league outing.
Niko Kovac’s charges will be out to right that wrong as they look to maintain the pressure on leaders Dortmund, and Lewandowski will spearhead their attacking challenge. The Pole has gone two league appearances without a goal – his most barren spell all season – but according to Bundesliga legend and 1990 FIFA World Cup winner Lothar Matthäus, Lewandowski remains a formidable threat.
"For me, Lewandowski is the ultimate key player," he told bundesliga.com. "He can go wide or drop deep and has an eye for a team-mate; he's provided a lot of assists this season."
Ginter will have to be at the top of his game to handle Lewandowski’s elusive movement and predatory instincts, which have established him as one of the finest strikers in the world over the past decade.
Thorgan Hazard vs. Joshua Kimmich
In a match full of fascinating face-offs, few will be more intriguing than Gladbach’s Belgian schemer going up against Bayern’s marauding full-back. Kimmich has provided the joint-most Bundesliga assists (10) from the right-hand side of the Bavarian defence, his industry matched by his creativity and superb deliveries that Lewandowski, in particular, has thrived upon.
Kimmich will take some stopping and Hazard will have to play his part in Gladbach’s efforts to do just that. The 25-year-old winger will be required to lend Oscar Wendt a helping hand at the back, with Kimmich adding further firepower to an already potent Bayern right flank likely led by Serge Gnabry.
As the saying goes, though, attack is the best form of defence – and Hazard will no doubt attempt to keep Kimmich quiet at one end by keeping him busy at the other. "Hazard's exceptionally good one-on-one, with an eye for goal and a good finish," purred Matthäus of the Belgium international. "He can also set his team-mates up to score."
Watch: Matthäus breaks down the key battles ahead of Gladbach vs. Bayern
The winger already has nine goals and seven assists in 22 Bundesliga appearances this term, and his ability to swerve tackles and skip past defenders puts him among the very best of a league littered with scintillating dribblers.
A run of six games without a goal is one Hazard will be desperate to end and Kimmich equally keen to extend. Whoever comes out on top on this side of the pitch could well end up determining the result of the game.
Denis Zakaria vs. Thiago Alcantara
If you like clashes in style then this is definitely one for you – the rangy Swiss ball-winner up against the silky Spaniard, all guile and deft intricacy. Zakaria will look to hound the Bayern playmaker, and if the Gladbach man can disrupt Bayern’s second-most productive thoroughfare – only centre-back Niklas Süle (95 per cent) has a better pass completion rate than Thiago’s 94 per cent in the Bayern ranks – then he can disrupt the entire Bayern system.
It will be up to Thiago to evade the attentions of Zakaria and provide Bayern's pulse as he has done so successfully in his last 12 matches, with the record champions winning every time. "Thiago pulls the strings in the middle," said Matthäus. "He's always on the ball, controlling the tempo with great positional awareness."
The Thiago-Javi Martinez pivot is crucial to Bayern's ability to transition between defence and attack. It allows their more advanced dangermen to play with greater freedom, knowing the ball is likely to be hastily recovered should they lose it.
Zakaria will hope to influence the game in an attacking sense too; his pace and driving runs through midfield are perfect tools to ensure Thiago is stationed deeper than he might like. Dieter Hecking may even prefer Tobias Strobl to Zakaria – the 28-year-old German is also something of a metronome, having completed 92 per cent of his 907 passes. Strobl is also strong in the tackle, and although he may not be as athletic as Zakaria, he does possess both a composure on the ball and a passing range that may be just the tonic to combat the Bayern threat.
Lars Stindl vs. Javi Martinez
Gladbach captain Stindl will likely lead the line against Bayern, his hold-up and link-up play valuable assets against a team who so often dominate possession for long spells. Stindl – usually happier playing off another centre-forward – will need his superb touch at its very best in order to allow teammates to switch from defence into attack. The Germany international will also be searching for vital space in order to help his side make gains in the Bayern half.
To do so, Stindl will often drop deeper to receive possession, on the lookout for open turf to exploit in between Bayern lines. This will often see the 30-year-old venture into the area that separates Munich’s defence and midfield – where Martinez normally patrols. With the ball, Stindl’s movement into Martinez's territory will have the aim of offering an outlet for his team and pulling a Bayern centre-back into unfamiliar ground. That should create gaps for the likes of Hazard, Patrick Herrmann or Alassane Plea to exploit.
It will be up to Bayern’s combative yet high-art midfield general to close this space. If Martinez can deny Gladbach their most productive ball out from the back, Kovac’s title chasers should be able to maintain the relentless pressure that so often forces their opponents into submission.