Cologne - “Bring it on” is the general refrain doing the rounds in Augsburg at the moment, as the compact south-west Bavarian city's footballing finest prepare to do battle with the mighty FC Bayern München.
Bayern with a score to settle
And while nobody is going quite so far as to try and sell it as a contest of equals, Saturday's encounter at the SGL arena is unequivocally – not to say unexpectedly – the big game of the upcoming Bundesliga weekend in top-end table terms.
It may be no great surprise to see Pep Guardiola's irrepressible star ensemble setting a searingly hot pace at the top, with a seven-point cushion already over closest pursuers VfL Wolfsburg. Five points further back in third, however, FC Augsburg are playing up a storm and exceeding all expectations, not least their own.
Last Saturday's 2-1 win at 1. FC Köln was their fourth on the trot, a new club record for die Függerstädter in this, their fourth season in the top flight. For the second week running, they also had to come from behind to secure it, courtesy of a deflected 90th-minute strike from substitute Alexander Esswein. The victory, head coach Markus Weinzierl said, was “ultimately well deserved,” on the basis above all of an impressive second-half showing, “even if there was a bit of luck about the goal, and it came in the last minute. When things are going well, they tend to go really well.”
That is certainly the case for Augsburg, who have gone from strength to strength since opening the campaign with successive losses to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund. Eight of their twelve games since have ended in a win, while Weinzierl's men also more than held their own in single-goal defeats at UEFA Champions League-chasing trio Bayer 04 Leverkusen, FC Schalke 04 and VfL Wolfsburg, and a 2-1 setback at 1. FSV Mainz 05.
Top game in Bavaria and beyond
Now comes the ultimate test against Bayern, “a mammoth task” as midfielder Tobias Werner acknowledged, before adding, “It's one we're looking forward to. We've already shown we can cause Bayern problems.” Indeed, it was in Augsburg that Bayern's record 53-game unbeaten run in the Bundesliga came to an abrupt halt in the corresponding fixture last season, courtesy of Sascha Mölders' 31st-minute strike. That said, the hosts themselves are not attaching too much significance to a victory over opponents fresh from wrapping up their defence of the title in record-quick time.
“They sent out their C-team,” Werner's midfield colleague Daniel Baier reflected, “that one was out of competition.” Needless to say, it is a different kettle of fish altogether this time around. Following 1. FC Nürnberg's demotion to Bundesliga 2, where Bayern's city neighbours TSV 1860 München have been languishing for years, Augsburg have become not just die Münchener's main Bavarian rivals but, for the moment, their only ones in the top flight, adding a further dash of regional spice to this unusual match of the day.
Looking at the bigger picture, Bayern will take to the pitch at the SGL arena on a in the league, four clean sheets latterly included, and just one goal against all-told in their last twelve outings. The men from Munich are notoriously thorough when it comes to settling their accounts and apart from putting the cap on their record best-mark, the 1-0 loss in April was also the first time they had failed to beat Augsburg in nine league and DFB Cup meetings down the years.
All of which makes them “odds-on favourites” to claim another three points on Saturday, and not only in Weinzierl's eyes. At the same time, the head coach made clear that his players are “not intimidated and that's not going to change.” Neither, for the moment, is Augsburg's official season target of avoiding relegation even though, as it stands, they occupy one of the automatic qualifying berths for the UEFA Champions League. As far as that goes, supersub Esswein noted with a grin, “If we beat Bayern as well, we can start talking about that next week.”