RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt set for top-six showdown
Standing out among the exciting round of fixtures that will fill Matchday 22 with no end of drama is RB Leipzig versus Eintracht Frankfurt: a game showcasing two teams on an upward curve.
This enticing coming together of two of the division’s high flyers pits last season’s DFB Cup winners against the UEFA Europa League champions, with the added value of a top-flight title battle thrown into Saturday’s mix.
Frankfurt ran out 4-0 winners in the corresponding fixture back in September, but that was at a time when the landscape looked altogether different for both sides.
Leipzig’s early-season struggles were particularly hard for fans of the Saxony-based side, given the success they witnessed at the end of 2021/22. After winning the DFB Cup and fighting their way to a top-four finish, what followed at the start of the current campaign was wholly unexpected. Added to the heavy defeat to Eintracht, there were disappointing domestic draws and UEFA Champions League setbacks that reduced Die Roten Bullen’s chances of advancing in Europe to a minimum.
Watch: When the Eagles attacked Die Roten Bullen
Down in 12th spot in the Bundesliga, Leipzig reached out to a local coach in an effort to reverse their fortunes. Marco Rose accepted the challenge, and neither he nor Leizpig have looked back since.
Eintracht’s beginning to 2022/23 may not have been quite as arduous, but it was at times equally painstaking for all connected with Die Adler. A 6-1 opening day home reverse against Bayern Munich preceded back-to-back draws against Hertha Berlin and Cologne that left Oliver Glasner’s men in 15th. Frankfurt, too, would be up against it in Europe following a 3-0 home loss to Sporting Lisbon in the Eagles’ first-ever Champions League group stage match.
Fast forward five months, and the turnaround for both teams has been spectacular. Leipzig – now in fifth – host an Eintracht side that has since climbed to sixth, with just one point separating the teams going into Saturday’s nail-biting prospect. What’s more, having reversed their respective fortunes in Europe, the weekend Bundesliga fixture falls between two Champions League last-16 second legs against Manchester City and Napoli respectively.
Watch: RBL doing things the Marco Rose way
For Leipzig, the Rose factor has been crucial. Arriving to take over from the departing Domenico Tedesco on 8 September 2022, the former Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach boss has perfectly clicked in the city of his birth.
"It’s never easy to take on a role in the public eye in your home city,” Rose said shortly after his unveiling as Leipzig’s new coach. "The people here expect a lot from the club and of course from me as well. I identify really strongly with Leipzig; it’s my home. I’ve always said that. Things will change a bit for me and I'll be judged on results."
Watch: Yussuf Poulsen: "The title race is exciting"
Fate would pit Rose against his former club Dortmund in his first game in charge at the Red Bull Arena. Leipzig won 3-0. Incredibly, after a 2-0 reverse to Real Madrid, the 46-year-old would face another former side in Gladbach in RBL’s next Bundesliga encounter. A 3-0 setback there provided Rose with the information he needed.
The tactical tweaks and motivational speeches that followed set Leipzig on a subsequent 18-match unbeaten run that was only brought to an end by Union Berlin this month. That Rose oversaw such a sequence without some key personnel is all the more impressive. The likes of Christopher Nkunku, captain and goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, Timo Werner, Abdou Diallo and Dani Olmo – among others – have all missed, or are continuing to miss, important chunks of the season.
Under the tactician’s guise, Leipzig have become a tightly knit group that fights for one another and that has produced several superb victories as a result.
Watch: Nkunku - Leipzig's main man
Bringing the best out of back-up goalkeeper Janis Blaswich has been one of the keys. The presence of Croatia World Cup bronze medallist Josko Gvardiol in defence alongside the ever-reliable Willi Orban, another. Orban’s Hungarian compatriot Dominik Szoboszlai (eight Bundesliga assists) is having a campaign to remember in attack, while summer signings Xaver Schlager and David Raum have added to the mix.
Throw in the evergreen Emil Forsberg and add Andre Silva’s aggressive in-box presence and you have part of what makes Leipzig tick. Yet, just as he was last season, Nkunku continues to be the main ingredient and the France attacker’s return from a torn knee ligament last weekend arrives at the perfect time for a side with ambitions fully alive in three competitions.
“There are not many players in the world that are as talented as he is,” Rose said of Nkunku. “Christo does things that you don’t expect because he’s an impact player and immensely talented.”
Still second on the top scorer’s list with 12 goals despite his lengthy injury lay-off, Die Roten Bullen’s No.18 will be keen to showcase his best once more against Eintracht. “He adds a lot to our game and his absence has been felt by all of us,” Leipzig’s coach said of last year's Bundesliga Player of the Season, who provided a goal assist on his return against Wolfsburg last weekend.
Asked at the beginning of his tenure at the Red Bull Arena for his coaching watchword, Rose answered, “Intensity is the key and it’s what we want to stand for here at RB Leipzig. We want to work intensively and play football intensively both with and without the ball. It has to be our goal to be a force to be reckoned with at home.”
With just such an approach, Leipzig defeated Real Madrid on their way to reaching the Champions League knockouts and began a climb up the Bundesliga table that has put the team into title contention. Rose’s outfit are also one of the last eight teams in this season’s DFB Cup.
Frankfurt are also firing on all three fronts following their own turnaround this term. Germany's 2014 FIFA World Cup final match winner Mario Götze was the headline summer signing, but Kristijan Jakic, Eric Dina Ebimbe and Lucas Alario were also among those who made the switch to Deutsche Bank Park. Eintracht made a move too for a talented French forward from FC Nantes, Randal Kolo Muani, who scored on his Bundesliga debut in that 6-1 loss against Bayern.
Watch: Mario Götze - Frankfurt's mastermind
Following a run of four games without a win in August, Eintracht travelled to face Werder and when Götze scored from a Kolo Muani assist, an air of change was afoot. Glasner’s side went behind in the game, but recovering from 2-1 down to win 4-3 that day gave evidence of a side starting to gel. Eintracht beat Leipzig 4-0 in their next match, five days before Rose was installed in Saxony.
The transfer comings and goings may have affected Frankfurt’s start to the season but for Glasner, the club’s essence is what carried them through the player transitions. “We’re an attractive club,” he explained. “Every [home] game is sold out, as are all our seating blocks when we play away from home. The club has enjoyed success in various competitions in recent years. It’s growing and thriving. Our style of play is attractive too. Players can improve with us and take the next step in their careers. The overall package makes us sexy.”
Watch: Eintracht got back to winning ways this past weekend
Equally as attractive on the eye is the ease with which Kolo Muani has taken to the Bundesliga. The 2022 FIFA World Cup finalist with France scored against Werder last weekend to take his tally to an astonishing 10 goals and 10 assists for this top-flight campaign.
That Die Adler have more Bundesliga wins so far this season (11) than they managed in an entire Bundesliga campaign last term (10) is in no small part down to their formidable French forward. His Champions League goals against Marseille and Sporting also helped Eintracht advance to the knockout stages at the first time of asking.
“It was a great feeling when the fans sang a chant for me for the first time,” the striker said of his growing relationship with the supporters. “I’ll keep working hard so that [the songs] happens again. Like all of us, I still have room for improvement and can do certain things better.”
Watch: Kolo Muani in the spotlight
Aside from the new arrivals, reliable presences like Kevin Trapp – who recently signed a contract extension at the club – Daichi Kamada, defensive duo Evan Ndicka and Tuta and veteran Sebastian Rode have had a calming influence on the field and around the club. Indeed, just as in Leipzig, things at Frankfurt have fallen into place at the most opportune time.
“It’s crunch time now with the three competitions, and it’s about focusing on the little details,” coach Glasner said recently. A crunch match at the at the Red Bull Arena will provide the next big test for two teams who want to continue their upward trends (kick-off: Saturday, 15:30 CET).
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