Mainz - League leaders Bayern Munich's trip to 1. FSV Mainz 05's Coface Arena on Saturday (kick-off 15:30 CET) was meant to be a meeting of two of the Bundesliga's most in-form marksmen.
However, while both Mario Mandzukic and Adam Szalai have been instrumental in their respective sides' league form, the latter has been denied a chance to once again prove himself against the record titleholders after picking up a fifth yellow card against Greuther Fürth on Matchday 19.
Mandzukic hit the ground running following his summer transfer from VfL Wolfsburg, and making the most of Mario Gomez's absence, the versatile no9 needed just twelve Bundesliga games to match the iconic number that adorns his shirt.
While the returning Gomez appeared to shake his confidence somewhat prior to the winter break, Mandzukic has once again hit top form in front of goal, scoring three in just two league games since the Bundesliga restart. Indeed, Super Mario II now sits second in the Bundesliga scorers' chart on twelve for the season, having put away three of Bayern's four goals in January.
"Victories are the priority"
Yet there's more than one string to the Mandzukic bow as VfB Stuttgart found out on Matchday 19. "I looked up and saw Thomas, I caught his eye, and I knew exactly where he was going. It wasn't that difficult because we practice that a lot in training. All we have to do is reproduce it in matches," explained the 26-year-old after laying on his first assist of the season for Thomas Müller.
Unlike Mainz, however, Bayern are better equipped to cope without their star striker. So if and when Mandzukic has an off-day, there's sure to be someone else to fill the void, be it ten-goal Müller, Franck Ribery or any one of the handful of stars that warm the Bayern bench. "We don’t just have 11 first-teamers, we have 20. But the players have to accept it. Victories are the priority," affirmed head coach Jupp Heynckes, who admitted he had "been studying Mainz for weeks" in preparation for Saturday's encounter.
Szalai's suspension will "weigh heavily" on the hosts according to head coach Thomas Tuchel, but his confidence in his charges is still unwavering. "We'll try and demonstrate others' strengths on the pitch. We have alternatives, but we're not going to try and replace Adam like for like." 19-year-old Shawn Parker, who has scored once and set-up a further two goals for team-mates in just 208 minutes of competitive action, is expected to replace Szalai, with Maxim Choupo-Moting still sidelined by injury.
Bayern's Belgian centre-back Daniel van Buyten acknowledged that it "won't be an easy match", which is understandable taking into account Thomas Tuchel's record against the Bavarians (three wins, one draw, three losses). The 39-year-old knows the "statistics will bring precious little on Saturday", especially against an outfit who he believes are "the most talented side in Europe" alongside Barcelona. "It's an incredibly difficult task to win against them," confessed Tuchel.
Mainz 05: Wetklo - Pospech, Svensson, Noveski, Junior Diaz - Baumgartlinger, Zimling - N. Müller, Ivanschitz, Soto - S. Parker
Bayern Munich: Neuer - Lahm, van Buyten, Dante, Alaba - Javi Martinez, Schweinsteiger - T. Müller, Kroos, Ribery - Mandzukic