Florian Wirtz vs. Jude Bellingham: Battle of the teens as Bayer Leverkusen host Borussia Dortmund
It’s time for teenaged royalty to step forth as young Bayer Leverkusen prince Florian Wirtz faces off against the imperial Jude Bellingham of Borussia Dortmund in a battle that mustn't be missed.
It's why we all love the Bundesliga: showcasing the best of the world’s youngest talent on the biggest footballing stage has long set pulses racing around the globe. And when in-form Leverkusen host confident Dortmund at the BayArena on Sunday, there will be gifted, teenaged tricksters all over the illuminated park. Leading the way will be Wirtz and Bellingham, a pair of 19-year-olds known throughout the game as the best in class.
The wait for the return to action of Bayer’s attacking midfield pearl has been almost as agonising for fans of Die Werkself as it has for the player himself. Wirtz finally reappeared on the competitive scene in a 3-2 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach on Matchday 16, signalling the end of a testing 10 months on the sidelines with a cruciate ligament tear.
Watch: Florian Wirtz raring to go again
Leverkusen certainly missed him, but with fortunes finally turning under the stewardship of coach Xabi Alonso, there was no better time for the young Germany international to slot back in.
"Above all, I looked forward to finally being able to sit in the dressing room again; to get changed together [with my teammates]; to have meals together and simply have the same experiences. I just wanted to be back with my friends again," Wirtz told his club's official website about the things that make him tick, and why his spell away from the game hurt so much.
On that fateful day he was injured in Cologne – the club of his youth – in March last year, the lights went out for a player who was central to all that was great about an eye-catching Leverkusen side. In 2021/22, he had a direct hand in 17 goals in 24 games, and his long injury layoff didn't prevent him from extending his contract until June 2027.
Now back and fighting fit once more, Wirtz proved to Alonso during several mid-season friendlies exactly what he brings to the Bayer setup.
Watch: Wirtz's finest moments
"Florian is a gift for me as a coach," the Spanish tactician explained in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung. "He's a player who is different: it's not always about making the most brilliant move, it's about making the best and the smartest. Florian can do that. That's why he's so good."
Ready to pull the strings among a cast of deadly young talent that includes Jeremie Frimpong, Moussa Diaby and Amine Adli, Wirtz says he is bringing more than just exemplary vision and pin-point passing to his game this time around. "[During my recovery] I was primarily able to bring my physical condition, my muscles, up to the next level," he explained.
"He improves our game between the lines; he has this special quality," Alonso added, the coach then warning: "In order for his extraordinary abilities to flourish, we need to give him a base. We can't count on him doing everything himself. That wouldn't do him or us justice."
There is little doubt that when Wirtz looks up and attempts to apply one of his trademark killer assists in the clash against Dortmund, he will likely see the imposing figure of Bellingham bearing down on him.
The recent entrant into the EA Sports Team of the Year insisted, "I have to continue to be everywhere on the pitch and try my best to contribute going forwards and backwards, and try and control games, try to dominate the midfield."
The England international added in an interview with Dortmund’s website: "Every year or half year that I've played at the club, my responsibility in the team [has] increased."
His reputation too. Bellingham is soaring in the Bundesliga and beyond.
Watch: Bellingham in EA Sports Team of the Year
Bellingham's 10 goals in all competitions means he is the leading BVB goalscorer in 2022/23, while he recently took his Bundesliga goals tally to a best-ever four with a superb strike in the victory against Augsburg. The former Birmingham City player also leads the division in terms of duels contested (468) and won (267), highlighting his essential presence to the Black-and-Yellow cause.
The worry for opposing Bundesliga teams is that Bellingham – who was one of the stand-out players at the 2022 World Cup, where England reached the quarter-finals – is never satisfied and is constantly thinking about improving his game. "I think about what more I could have done, always," he acknowledged.
What he has done so far in Germany is astounding. He has even captained BVB on a couple of occasions this season at just 19, becoming the youngest Bundesliga skipper since data collection began in 1995. "When I was captain for the first time in the Champions League, I scored, set up Rapha [Raphael Guerreiro], got Man of the Match, my mum was there... It felt like the perfect evening, to be fair!” the midfielder declared.
Watch: Bellingham - the complete midfielder
Like Wirtz, Bellingham is also in the company of some astounding young talent at his club. Youssoufa Moukoko, Karim Adeyemi, Gio Reyna and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, among others, all tend to flourish when Bellingham is at his commanding best.
What awaits at the BayArena is thus all the more enticing, knowing that Leverkusen and Dortmund’s midfield masters will be making waves at the heart of the contest. But who will prevail when the Bundesliga’s young footballing royalty goes head to head?
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