From Robert Lewandowski to Timo Werner, Tyler Adams and Serge Gnabry, there are plenty of men who could decide the 2018/19 DFB Cup final when RB Leipzig tussle with Bayern Munich this weekend. We take a closer look at the players on both sides who could prove match winners at the Olympiastadion in Berlin.
Ibrahima Konate vs. Robert Lewandowski
If you can keep your team captain out of the side - in this case Willi Orban - then clearly you are a special player and Leipzig coach Ralf Rangnick is no two minds about Ibrahima Konate: "He's developed brilliantly here so far and his qualities have led to him becoming an integral member of our defence."
Still just 19, Konate has indeed become a key man for Die Roten Bullen: first as one of two centre-halves in a back four and now as the central figure in a three-man backline. The France U21 international featured in 12 of the team’s 17 clean sheets for what was the league’s meanest defence in 2018/19 and both his pace and aerial prowess - Konate won 71.3 per cent of all aerial duels in 2018/19, compared to Robert Lewandowski’s 39.5 per cent - will mean the Pole has to be at his very best to elude Konate’s attentions. He was unable to do so in the teams' recent 0-0 draw on Matchday 33, where 'Lewy' was restricted to just two attempts on goal.
Watch: Analysis of the key players in Leipzig vs. Bayern!
Of course, this is Lewandowski we are talking about. The league’s record foreign goalscorer, a man who just won his fourth Torjägerkanone, and someone with 35 goals in all competitions already this season and nine in his last 11 league appearances. The seven-time Bundesliga winner will have more than a few tricks up his sleeve for an opponent 11 years his junior. He has also scored more than any other player in this fixture with four goals in the rivalry’s six Bundesliga showdowns to date.
The 30-year-old has, however, only netted once in four previous meetings with Konate. His effort in the 2-0 win at the Allianz Arena in 2017 came 10 minutes after the Frenchman was called from the bench as a result of Leipzig going down to 10 men.
Timo Werner vs Niklas Süle
The closest man to Lewandowski’s goalscoring record in this fixture is Timo Werner, who has three Leipzig goals against the Bavarian giants; half of his team’s combined total against the record Bundesliga champions. Five goals in the last eight league games took Werner to 16 for the season, an enormously productive output that helped fuel Leipzig's 15-match unbeaten run between Matchdays 19 and 33 to help the side finish third in the table.
Niklas Süle needs little reminding of his opponent’s qualities, but the 23-year-old Bayern centre-back will relish going stride for stride with his Germany teammate. Süle’s 6’5” frame belies the fact that he is the second-fastest player at the club after Kingsley Coman (his top speed of 21.6mph is just 0.1 mph less than the French winger).
And although Süle might look like a hulking, no-nonsense defender at first glance, he tends to excel in all aspects of the game. He has the joint-best pass completion rate in the league (95 per cent) and has been in possession this season (2799 touches) more than any other Bayern player, bar midfield maestro Thiago (2916).
In nine games against Werner, Süle has managed to keep three clean sheets, although the overall individual battle between the pair is largely even. Werner has scored on four occasions, been denied five times by Süle and they both have three wins, three draws and three defeats from those previous duels.
Watch: Why Timo Werner is so important for RB Leipzig
Tyler Adams vs Thiago
Tyler Adams has well and truly hit the ground running in Germany following his winter transfer from the New York Red Bulls and quickly earned himself a place in the starting line-up. His terrier-like tackling and composure on the ball make for an irresistible combination in central midfield, and it was no coincidence that Leipzig went nine games without defeat with him in the side.
The 20-year-old suffered an adductor muscle injury in March that kept him sidelined for six weeks, but he returned to action on Matchday 34, playing 64 minutes of Die Roten Bullen's dead rubber 2-1 defeat against Werder Bremen. Averaging 50 per cent of duels won, completing 85 per cent of his passes and having also chipped in with two assists, Adams is a fierce competitor who will not be overawed by the occasion.
The same can very much be said of his opposite number in the Bayern midfield, Thiago. The Spaniard contributed a relatively humble two goals and six assists over the course of the Bundesliga season, but in truth his value lies elsewhere. Thiago is more often than not the man to play the pass before the assist, threading seemingly impossible balls through defences to the wingers, who cross into the middle.
Watch: How Thiago pulls Bayern's strings
Furthermore, the 28-year-old is the player who keeps Bayern ticking over, the link between defence and attack. Silky smooth on the ball, Thiago found a teammate with 93 per cent of his passes in 2018/19, an astonishing figure for someone who frequently takes risks in the final third. Add into the mix that he wins 61 per cent of all challenges and you have a player who does not shy away from the dirty work in midfield either.
Marcel Halstenberg vs Serge Gnabry
What a season it has been for these two, who have emerged as key cogs in the set-ups for their respective clubs and shared national team. Serge Gnabry and Marcel Halstenberg will each pose a serious threat on their side of the pitch, which is likely to result in a rapid back-and-forth between the two players, both full of running. It will be chess-like strategy played out at full tilt as the Mannschaft mates battle over territorial gains.
Defensively, Halstenberg featured in all-but-one of Leipzig’s clean sheets en route to conceding just 29 goals across 34 Matchdays in the Bundesliga. Offensively, he notched up six assists (one more than Gnabry’s five) and struck three goals from left-back, including both in the 2-1 win at Borussia Mönchengladbach that rubber-stamped Champions League qualification for next season.
Having missed the entirety of the second half of 2017/18 through injury, Halstenberg played every minute between Matchdays 13 and 33, before being rested on the final day of the season. He's found form and fitness ahead of one of the biggest challenges a defender can face: Gnabry.
The Bayern forward has come into his own this year and was the only Bayern man other than Lewandowski to hit double figures in terms of goals. Kovac has stated the 23-year-old "has made a very good contribution to the team" as they press for the title, with his 10 goals and five assists coming from the right wing, where he has taken on the hefty baton being passed by Arjen Robben with remarkable ease.
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