And we’re back…
Football has returned, and we have missed it.
The Bundesliga will be making its return from hiatus, and as football has returned, so too has the Weekend Preview. This weekend, and the upcoming weekends, will take a decidedly German flavor, and if/when more leagues reset, we will incorporate them in. I will admit at the beginning, the return from a long hiatus makes these matches much tougher to predict. Fitness issues and a lack of match sharpness plague every team, so basing these matches off of recent form is nearly impossible. Despite this, I am here to give it a go. So, fangen wir an…
RB Leipzig vs. Freiburg
Leipzig kick off the return with a tough match against European place challengers Freiburg. While it is not the toughest way to start this return, Freiburg is a difficult opponent and will make things tough for the Red Bulls. Julian Nagelsmann will have to also make do without star center back Dayot Upamecano, who misses out due to injury. With Willi Orban, Ibrahima Konate, and Ethan Ampadu still all unavailable, Nagelsmann will have to form an even more makeshift back three. Nordi Mukiele, who had been filling in as a very good wing back previously, will have to drop into the back three to partner Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg, and Tyler Adams will likely deputize at wing back in Mukiele’s stead. This is the only major absence for Leipzig, so their entire attack should be intact. They just need to hope that Timo Werner and company can knock the rust off and get back to their pre-hiatus form quickly, as that is the only way they can get back into the title race.
Freiburg, like their opponents, entered the hiatus in pretty meh form, including two losses in their final three matches. They still remain a point off of Schalke in sixth, and if they finish the season strong, European football is a very realistic possibility for them. They welcomed back star forward Luca Waldschmidt from long-term injury prior to the hiatus, and the 23 year old should return to the team fresh and ready to go. He will be key in Freiburg’s push for Europe. They will, however, be going to East Germany without center back Lukas Kübler, who misses out due to injury. Christian Streich will have to assemble a defense strong enough to hold out the potent Leipzig attack if they hope to come away with anything from this match.
This is going to be a common theme of these predictions, but I do not think there will be many goals. The lack of fitness and match sharpness in all of these teams is going to add up to pretty slow affairs. Leipzig’s individual talent will see them through, but I imagine Nagelsmann will tone down their high-pressing, aggressive style until his team is fully match fit.
RB Leipzig 2-0 Freiburg
Hoffenheim vs. Hertha Berlin
As I said in my Bundesliga is back piece, there are still things to play for all over the league, and this match is a testament to that. Hoffenheim are very much in the hunt for a European place, while Hertha are very much looking over their shoulder to avoid being dragged into the relegation places.
Hoffenheim found themselves in great position to qualify for Europe after a 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in early February, but they then proceeded to not win another game between then and the hiatus, leaving them in ninth. The hiatus may have been a good thing, allowing them to get out of their rut and approach the rest of the season with a refreshed mindset. They will unfortunately be without star forward Andrej Kramarić, who misses out due to injury, but Israeli striker Munas Dabbur should be back in contention for a starting spot. Also, look for Dortmund loanee Jacob Bruun Larsen to force his way into the team in these next few games. This restart presents him with a great opportunity to see some first team playing time.
Well, things are not going well for one of Berlin’s two Bundesliga clubs this season, and it is not the one that you expected. While Union have shocked and surprised, sitting comfortably mid-table at the moment, Hertha have struggled, and they have done so very much in the public eye. Jürgen Klinsmann’s very short and turbulent time in the capital brought a lot of negative attention onto an already struggling Hertha team, and winger Salomon Kalou’s flaunting of Germany’s self-isolation guidelines will not do anything to remove the negative spotlight currently shining brightly on die Alte Dame. With Klinsmann gone, the task of keeping Hertha in the first division now falls on Bruno Labbadia, and with three of their next four matches including the Berlin Derby against Union, as well as away trips to Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, it is clear that there is very little room for error here. Labbadia will have to work without Kalou, who has been suspended by the club, as well as Vladimir Darida, who misses out due to non-COVID related suspension. Dedryck Boyata looks set to make his return to the team, and he, along with center back partner Niklas Stark, will be given the key responsibility of giving Hertha the chance to get points out of this match.
Both of these teams were struggling prior to the hiatus, but the struggles at Hertha are much deeper and more systemic than those in Hoffenheim. Again, there will likely be very few goals in this match, but Hoffenheim will come out on top in a pretty slow-paced affair.
Hoffenheim 1-0 Hertha Berlin
Augsburg vs. Wolfsburg
Fate has once again given us a match that is important at both ends of the table, as struggling Augsburg face high-flying Wolfsburg.
Augsburg’s poor run of form in February saw them drop directly into the relegation fight, within five points of Fortuna Düsseldorf in 16th, and led to the dismissal of manager Martin Schmidt. Heiko Herrlich was brought in as a replacement, but two days after his appointment, the league was suspended. The “glass half full” way to look at this would be to say that this break has given Herrlich plenty of time to assess the team he has, as well as providing the Augsburg players plenty of time to recover and get out of their rut from before the hiatus. However, there will likely be a significant adaptation period for Herrlich, as well as his players, to adapt to the team and return to full fitness. Despite their struggles, Augsburg have been relatively good at home, picking up two thirds of their points at the WWK Arena, so they will welcome the opportunity to play in familiar settings, despite the fact that there will not be any fans present. Herrlich will be relieved to know that he has a mostly full team to pick from, with the only notable absence being youngster Simon Asta. He will rely on striker Florian Niederlechner and left back Philipp Max to continue their incredible form and lead the team out of danger.
On the other end, Wolfsburg were flying prior to the hiatus. A Europa League defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in March ended what was a six match unbeaten run that stretched back into January. While their form before the unbeaten run was quite inconsistent, that run means that sixth place, and the final Europa League spot, remains very much in the picture for Oliver Glasner’s team. They will travel to Bavaria confident, with an away record as impressive as their opponent’s home record, and they will be extra-comforted knowing the match is behind closed doors. Their biggest concern is having to live without leading scorer Wout Weghorst, who is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Admir Mehmedi and Daniel Ginczek will likely be trusted to pick up the slack going forward. With Schalke facing a difficult test against Dortmund, Wolfsburg know a win here would be massive in their hunt for the Europa League, with die Wölfe sitting only a point behind Schalke in that final Europa League place.
This match takes place on the anniversary of Wolfsburg’s 8-1 demolition of Augsburg last season, but I would be shocked if this match came close to that. The lack of match fitness of both teams, combined with the absence of Weghorst, who scored three times in that 8-1 rout, will mean this is a low scoring affair. I see both sides finding a goal, as Herrlich should be able to at least get a tune out of Niederlechner and Max, so the points will be shared.
Augsburg 1-1 Wolfsburg
Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke
The Revierderby, Germany’s biggest derby and the premier match of the weekend, sees Dortmund and Schalke begin what is an incredibly crucial end to their season.
Despite their defeat in the Champions League in Paris, Dortmund were riding a very good spell of league form prior to the hiatus. On the backs of stellar performances from Erling Håland and Jadon Sancho, Dortmund clawed their way into second, only four points off of Bayern in the top spot. The potential to end Saturday only one point off of first place is a massive deal, and these three points would be massive for Lucien Favre’s team. They will have to reverse some recent misfortune against their hated rivals, as they have only won one in their last eight meetings in the Revierderby, losing this fixture 4-2 last season. Injuries and fitness will be a major issue for Dortmund in this match, as they will be without Axel Witsel, Emre Can, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Nico Schulz, and Marco Reus. They should, however, have Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi fit for selection, as both should overcome their minor injury issues. Possibly the biggest blow for BVB will be the absence of their supporters, as they will have to play this home match behind closed doors, without the formidable atmosphere that their stadium creates. Dortmund have the best home record in the league this season, partially thanks to that imposing atmosphere, so being without the support of the Gelbe Wand will be a noticeable absence.
Despite Schalke’s strong record this season, losing less matches than any team outside of the top three, they have failed to win a league match since beating Gladbach in mid-January. Half of their losses this season have come since then, and David Wagner will have to come up with some way to reverse the current trend his team was on prior to the hiatus. Schalke are still in contention to qualify for the Europa League next season, but sixth is seemingly their ceiling, and they need to fight hard to hold on to that spot. Wagner will have to live without Ozan Kabak, Omar Mascarell, and possibly Benjamin Stambouli, all out with injuries, but he should be able to pick from a relatively fully fit team aside from those absences. The crucial return of Suat Serdar, die Knappen‘s top scorer this season, should be huge, and he will play a key role in their hopes of getting a result. Despite having probably an inferior team talent-wise the last few seasons, Schalke have only lost one of their last eight derbies, so they know that discipline and work ethic can get them a crucial result here.
This is going to be a very aggressive match. Despite not having a volatile atmosphere to feed into the match, there will still be some aggressive challenges and confrontations, likely to compensate for each team’s lack of full match fitness. Momentum and adrenaline will likely carry each team through. This match has the potential to be the highest scoring of the day, given Dortmund’s defensive frailties and the absence of Zagadou, and Schalke could very well win this match. It is very difficult to predict, but I have to give the edge to Dortmund based on the attacking talent they have. Håland and Sancho should win the day for Favre’s men and keep them on the hunt of Bayern in the title race.
Borussia Dortmund 2-1 Schalke
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach
We have our final Europe/relegation match up of Saturday, with last season’s Europa League semifinalists facing the once-title-challenging Gladbach in Frankfurt.
Eintracht are not necessarily in major relegation danger. They are six points ahead of 16th with a game in hand, so it would take a bad run of form to drag them into the relegation scrap properly, but their poor run of form before the hiatus means their chances at European football are dwindling away. Frankfurt enjoy one of the best home records in the league, which balances out their league-worst away record, but they will not be able to enjoy the benefits of the formidable atmosphere that usually greats travelers at the Commerzbank-Arena. Adi Hutter will probably be happy with the hiatus, having two extra months to figure out what has gone wrong for die Adler recently and how to get out of their rut. This hiatus has also allowed most of their injured players to heal, as Marco Russ will be the only player missing for Hutter’s team. Their success will largely be dependent on Goncalo Paciencia continuing his goalscoring form, as their team still lacks goals following Sébastien Haller and Luka Jović’s departure.
With a slight dip in form, Gladbach have begun to fall away from the title race, but a first league title in 50 years is still a possibility. They are only six points off of the top, and should they restart the season better than the top three, they are immediately shoved back into the title race. Retaining their spot in the top four, however, is probably the priority, as Bayer Leverkusen are only two points behind them. Marco Rose’s team had lost just one in seven prior to the hiatus, but they have not won back-to-back games since December, and they have also not won three away matches in a row since the beginning of the season. While they were good before the hiatus, Rose knows his team has to be even more consistent in the final nine matches of the season if they are to secure Champions League football next season, and if they are to possibly challenge for the title. Gladbach do have one major omission in the team, as star midfielder Denis Zakaria is out after undergoing knee surgery. This puts the onus of controlling the midfield on Christoph Kramer and youngster Florian Neuhaus, who are skilled but lack the combination of physical and technical skill that Zakaria offers. The rest of their first-choice players are available for selection, and they will likely look to French duo Alassane Pléa and Marcus Thuram to restart their potent attacking partnership.
It is hard to predict how the hiatus will affect Gladbach’s previous good form, or if it will help Eintracht get out of their rut. Eintracht’s normally strong home form should be less of a factor in a behind closed doors match, and while Zakaria’s absence is big, it should not be enough to stop Gladbach from securing all three points. The attacking potency of Thuram and Pléa should be too much for Eintracht.
Eintracht Frankfurt 1-2 Borussia Mönchengladbach
Union Berlin vs. Bayern Munich
The key to seeing whether we have a title race is how Bayern start the restart of the league. Union were unlucky to not get a point in their trip to Bavaria, and this match could be an interesting trap game for Bayern.
Union Berlin are, unexpectedly, thoroughly enjoying their first ever time in the top flight. Largely considered the favorite to go down at the beginning of the season, die Eisernen find themselves comfortably mid table, looking down on their cross-city rivals as well. They put up an impressive account of themselves in their trip to Bavaria earlier in the season, with Sebastian Andersson’s saved penalty the only thing that stopped them from leaving Munich with a point. Their rapid counter-attacking style has surprised some teams, making them much more competitive than many anticipated. Despite this good feeling, there is some worry due to fitness issues. Center back Marvin Friedrich misses out due to suspension, while winger Sheraldo Becker misses out due to injury. There are also fitness doubts for Sebastian Andersson, their top scorer, along with dynamic attacking midfielder Akaki Gogia. Those absences, especially Friedrich and Andersson, would make beating the champions even more difficult, so it is clear Urs Fischer has his work cut out for him.
Hansi Flick’s Bayern Munich has become a force to be reckoned with. They have become arguably the best team in Europe, with organized team pressing and positional fluidity not seen in Bavaria since the peak of Pep Guardiola and Jupp Heynckes’ time in charge of Bayern. Robert Lewandowski is scoring goals for fun, Thomas Müller is rejuvenated, and the midfield pairing of Thiago and Joshua Kimmich largely controls the play. Bayern won 11 matches in a row prior to the hiatus, so if they are able to reignite that form, they will likely not be caught. Bayern will be without Philippe Coutinho and Corentin Tolisso, both out due to ankle injuries, and they remain without star center back Niklas Süle, but the rest of their team, including all of the key players that have thrived under Flick, remain available.
Union’s Stadion An der Alten Försterei is quite a difficult place to go as an away team. Just ask Dortmund and Gladbach, who both lost in their trip to the former East Berlin. With the match behind closed doors, however, that massive advantage for Union is now gone. Bayern, with their overwhelming advantage in quality, should win easily.
Union Berlin 0-3 Bayern Munich
Werder Bremen vs. Bayer Leverkusen
You thought we were done with the Europe/relegation games? Nope, we have one more. Crisis club Werder Bremen host Champions League-hunters Bayer Leverkusen in a match that both teams could do with winning.
Werder Bremen are not enjoying this season. One of Germany’s institutional clubs, die Grün-Weißen find themselves eight points off safety with a game in hand. They might need a miracle to stay in the top flight. They have only picked up five points at home this season, a league worst, so possibly playing behind closed doors without the pressure of the home fans could be helpful for them. Trying to grasp at straws, here, but things get worse for Florian Kohfeldt when you look at the injury and unavailable list. Key midfielder Davy Klaassen will miss out due to suspension, while injury concerns will rule out Claudio Pizarro, Omer Toprak, Kevin Mohwald, and Niclas Fullkrug. With matches against Gladbach, Schalke, and Bayern still coming up, things just are not looking great for Werder Bremen.
Leverkusen were flying before the hiatus, having gone unbeaten since the beginning of February and climbing up the table into fifth, with the Champions League places well within reach. Peter Bosz has gotten the most of the young talent available to him, with his free-flowing attacking side seemingly scoring goals for fun at times. Their 4-3 win over Dortmund prior to the hiatus was the perfect example of this. Kai Havertz, the crown jewel of the team, is enjoying another very strong season, but the likes of Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby are also making an impact. Experienced forwards Kevin Volland and Lucas Alario are also scoring goals. Really, everyone in this team is scoring goals. They are a lot of fun. Because of their incredible form before the hiatus, they now find themselves within two points of Gladbach and could very well catch Dortmund and Leipzig, as well. With Gladbach playing a tricky match against Eintracht Frankfurt, Bosz knows a win here would greatly help his team in the hunt for fourth. They will be without Volland, but Alario and Havertz should be able to pick up the slack.
The misery is going to continue for Bremen. Without Klaassen, there just is not enough quality in this team to create chances, and also not enough quality to score them. Can we all give Florian Kohfeldt a hug? He probably needs one.
Werder Bremen 0-4 Bayer Leverkusen