James Rodriguez trying to outwit Max Meyer, the titanic collision of Arturo Vidal and Leon Goretzka in midfield, and the heavyweight bout between Naldo and Robert Lewandowski. Those are just some of the sub-plots to one of Matchday 22's most intriguing encounters as bundesliga.com gives its verdict on who will come out on top when Bayern Munich host Schalke on Saturday.
James vs. Meyer
James' ability to turn games on his own has rarely been in sharper focus than now when the summer loan signing from Real Madrid is playing arguably the best football of his career. Four goals — how about that delicious free-kick against Leverkusen? — and six assists are proof of that. Yet, Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has an ominous warning for opponents: "He is playing well, but he can play better. I have told him personally how I think he can improve."
That will send shivers down Schalke spines, and the visitors will require Max Meyer to be at his bullish brilliant best throughout the 90 minutes. A UEFA Under-21 EURO winner last summer, Meyer has surprised everyone bar coach Domenico Tedesco in excelling in a deeper midfield role. His 90 per cent pass completion ratio makes him a precious link between defence and attack, much like Nuri Sahin or Julian Weigl at Borussia Dortmund. Schalke will, however, need the combative qualities that have seen him win 56 per cent of his challenges and cover a sapping 121 miles in 19 league games this season — an average of 6.3 miles per game — if he is to do what no one else has been able to recently: keep James quiet.
bundesliga.com verdict: James too strong
Watch: All James' goals and assists so far
Vidal vs. Goretzka
This contest within a contest has the added spice of the Schalke man being tipped to replace Vidal — nearly eight years Goretzka's senior — when he arrives at Bayern in the summer. On Saturday, Goretzka will have his hands full competing directly with Vidal, who is playing out of his heavily tattooed skin. The disappointment the Chile international may feel at not going to next summer's FIFA World Cup has certainly not affected his game negatively, and may even be the spark behind his six-goal Bundesliga haul, his best league tally in a Bayern shirt since his move from Juventus in 2015. More than his enhanced goal threat, Vidal's drive from midfield has fuelled their stunning renaissance under Heynckes, and he remains a player who can bring a game to heel. Goretzka may be able to do that in the future — he certainly has the potential — but he is not yet in Vidal's class. Furthermore, the fact he is playing in his future home against his soon-to-be team-mates will surely play on his mind.
bundesliga.com verdict: Vidal to dominate
Watch: All Vidal's Bundesliga goals and assists so far this season
Hummels vs. Burgstaller
Mats Hummels played for the first time in 2018 in the Matchday 21 win against Mainz and was immediately his typical unruffled self at the back. Heynckes had warned him that he "has a bit to do" after seeing Jerome Boateng and Niklas Süle impress as a pair in his absence, but Hummels remains the league leaders' premier centre-back. That statement is backed up by his stunning stats: 65 per cent of challenges won, 87 per cent pass completion, and — incredibly — just 10 fouls in 1313 minutes. Yes, one foul every two matches (and a bit more).
That record, as clean as Hummels' catalogue-model jawline, will be put to the test by the physical, tireless Guido Burgstaller, who has clocked 113 miles for the Royal Blue cause this season. That sapping stat explains why Tedesco left the former Nuremberg man on the bench for the last two league games as — as the Schalke boss himself explained — the striker "did not have the necessary freshness." Now rested, Burgstaller will be desperate to add to his seven league goals this season, a tally that has been on ice over his last five Bundesliga appearances. Bringing his goalscoring form out of deep freeze up against the ever-cool Hummels will, however, surely prove a near-impossible task.
bundesliga.com verdict: Hummels by TKO
Lewandowski vs. Naldo
In the red corner, weighing in at a league-leading 18 goals, Rrrrrrrrrrobert Lewandowskiiiiiii! And in the blue corner, boasting super-heavyweight Bundesliga experience, it's the evergreen Naaaaalllldoooo! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this will be one heck of a contest over two halves and 90 bruising minutes…
JAB FROM THE BAYERN MAN! The only question Lewandowski has raised this season is whether or not that hair colour he toyed with before Christmas suited him. NALDO COUNTERS! The 35-year-old won a massive 73 per cent of his Hinrunde challenges and is playing so well that Brazil boss Tite is considering him for a FIFA World Cup place! LEWY WITH A BODY BLOW! The Poland international has found the net in each of his last four league matches against Schalke — scoring five times in total. NALDO WITH AN UPPERCUT! The veteran centre-back has hit three goals in his last five league matches, while Lewandowski has scored just four in the same timeframe. LEWANDOWSKI HAS NALDO ON THE ROPES! The former Dortmund striker has not failed to score in two successive league games since 2016, and — look out Schalke! — he didn't hit the net last time out against Mainz.
bundesliga.com verdict: Lewandowski on points
Watch: Lewandowski's first 15 of 18 Bundesliga goals so far this season
Kimmich v Oczipka
The best right-back in the league against the division's premier left-back could be — for all the fanfare and focus elsewhere — just as central to deciding the outcome of the game. Joshua Kimmich, who turned 23 on Thursday, has been living up to his billing as the (young) man that has the potential to fill the boots of the legendary Philipp Lahm. The 124 miles he has covered for the league leaders' cause have been embellished by him winning 58 per cent of his challenges, and boasting an enviable 90 per cent pass completion ratio, many of those coming from wide positions and into the opposition penalty box.
The Germany international has teed up 42 shots in total for team-mates, but finds himself outdone by Bastian Oczipka, who has supplied 50 opportunities for a strike. The former St Pauli man can match his Bayern counterpart for challenges won, and though his pass completion trails (78 per cent), he has been fouled a bruising 45 times. That’s painful for his shins, but promising for Schalke, who may gain some well-positioned free-kicks for their full-back's pain.
bundesliga.com verdict: Too close to call
Heynckes vs. Tedesco
The double-generation gap between the two men in the dug-out will provide one of the greatest contrasts the Bundesliga has seen, but what the pair share despite their 40-year difference in age is a talent for getting the best out of their teams.
Heynckes' ability to do so has been tried and tested time and again, and rarely has he been found wanting. The 72-year-old's transformation of Bayern from a side five points adrift of Dortmund to a team with an 18-point lead at the top of the table in the space of four months is nothing short of mercurial.
Some may describe Tedesco's work like that too. Schalke finished in the underbelly of the Bundesliga last season, but with a few adjustments, the fledging tactician, 32, has the Royal Blues performing regally. Just a point off second place, Schalke are genuine top-four contenders this term, though they could have done without a trip to Bavaria on the back of a sticky spell that has brought just one win in five league games.
bundesliga.com verdict: Don Jupp is still the master