People up and down Germany braced themselves for Storm Sabine to hit last Sunday but, before the gales began to swirl around Munich, there was time for RB Leipzig to visit the city, deny Bayern victory and leave with a point. The goalless draw was a good result for Leipzig – and anyone who wants to see a title race in Germany. Bayern roared out of the winter break, winning three games in a row and banging in a dozen goals in the process. With Leipzig and Dortmund both dropping points in 2020, it looked as if the champions were going to resume their usual procession to the title.
The first half of the season gave everyone hope. Bayern seemed to be doing everything possible to make things exciting. Their fortunes improved after Hansi Flick replaced Niko Kovac in November, but they looked as if they were there for the taking. But still, when Bayern click, they win, and often comfortably. Injuries made the squad look thin by their standards but, after losing back-to-back games against Leverkusen and Gladbach to give their challengers cause for optimism, Bayern have won six of their last seven.
They have not been at their best this season but they still have the meanest defensive record in the league, the top scorer and, crucially, they still sit top of the league. With Philippe Coutinho, Kingsley Coman and Lucas Hernandez among the substitutes at the weekend – and with Ivan Perišić, Javi Martínez and Niklas Süle still to return from injury – the squad looks pretty healthy. Flick has also managed to re-integrate Thomas Müller and Jérôme Boateng, both of whom seemed to be on their way out of the club. Boateng in particular has profited from Flick’s appointment, becoming a key player again. At the other end of the pitch, Robert Lewandowski has scored more goals this season than he has played matches.
Bayern lean on Lewandowski but Leipzig are perhaps even more reliant on their star striker, Timo Werner, whose form and fitness are crucial to any sustained title push. Julian Nagelsmann’s team were top of the league at Christmas but they did not carry their momentum through the winter break and have dropped seven points in their first three games of 2020. Still, they are second in the table – just a point behind Bayern – and their goalless draw in Munich on Sunday gives them a good platform to build upon.
Dortmund’s forward line has a different make-up. In the absence of a classic mittelstürmer, they often look to their captain and talisman, Marco Reus, to lead the line, with an array of exciting youngsters including Jadon Sancho, Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard giving him support. In fact, Sancho is their top scorer with 12 goals – to go along with his 14 assists. Add in new signing Erling Braut Haaland, who has already scored seven goals in his first four league games, and it is easy to see why Dortmund are the top scorers in the league. Mario Götze, incidentally, cannot get a game. With Emre Can taking a slot next to Axel Witsel in the centre of midfield, and Achraf Hakimi and Raphaël Guerreiro flying up the flanks, Dortmund look dangerous.
However, as their 4-3 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday highlighted once again, their problem is keeping the back door closed. Only seven clubs in the league have conceded more goals this season. Their forwards are scoring at a phenomenal rate – especially Haaland, who has a goal for every 32 minutes he has been on the pitch for the club – but they cannot be expected to keep that up all season.
For some Dortmund fans, Lucien Favre is the issue. Although he is undoubtedly a talented coach and tactician, not every supporter has taken to him. His apparent lack of passion on the touchline has been a bugbear. This may be slightly unfair, but his introverted manner is often at odds with the din bellowing around the stadium, particularly in a league where fans are accustomed to seeing managers wearing their hearts on their sleeve – which is certainly the case with Nagelsmann.
With 12 games to play, there are plenty of points up for grabs and plenty of banana skins for all three teams. Leipzig and Dortmund have a testing few weeks ahead, with Leipzig off to Schalke and Wolfsburg, and Dortmund facing a testing trip to Mönchengladbach (who are also hoping to mount a title charge) and then the Revierderby against Schalke, a game where anything can – and often does – happen. In comparison, only one of Bayern’s next five league games is against a team in the top half of the table.
Dortmund cannot afford to lose ground before Bayern come to town in early April, particularly with a trip to Leipzig on the penultimate weekend of the season. Leipzig have already played Bayern both home and away. If they come through the next month or so without dropping too many points, they could be set up for a strong finish. On the same weekend as Bayern travel to Dortmund, Leipzig will host Hertha Berlin, who are having a season to forget. A home win coupled with good news from Dortmund could give them a real push in the title race, especially with games against Köln, Paderborn, Hoffenheim and Dusseldorf before they host Dortmund.
The Champions League, which returns next week, could have an intriguing and defining influence on the title race. All three clubs have tricky last-16 matches next week, with Leipzig off to Tottenham, Bayern visiting Chelsea and Dortmund hosting PSG. The three German sides will want to go as far as they can in the competition, but there is more expectation on Bayern’s shoulders.
An eighth title in a row would be unprecedented. Although, so was seven. A league title is not to be sniffed at, but surely Bayern could be forgiven for prioritising the Champions League, particularly if they overcome Chelsea – who have only won one league game this year – and are given a kind draw in the quarter-finals. Leipzig and Dortmund will be competitive with anyone over two legs, but they do not quite have Bayern’s pedigree in Europe and are both slight underdogs in their last-16 ties.
The further Bayern progress, the greater the temptation will be to go all out for European glory, potentially clearing the way for Leipzig or Dortmund to emerge from their slipstream and sprint to the finish. In recent seasons, Bayern have often been able to rest players in the league to keep them fresh for big European nights. That is looking less likely this season. Bayern also have to consider the DFB-Pokal, which could add three more matches to their season – matches that neither Leipzig nor Dortmund have to worry about.
After nearly a decade of Bayern dominance, the idea of a genuine title race – and maybe even a three-horse race – is very appealing. However, to keep up the pace, the challengers will need to over-perform and hope Bayern under-perform.