Leverkusen have a golden chance to knock off champions Bayern

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It’s carnival weekend in the Rhineland: a time of chaos and celebration, a world of masks and costumes, a time to express yourself and discover who you are. There will certainly be plenty of fancy dress on display in the BayArena on Saturday when Bayer Leverkusen take on Bayern Munich in the biggest game of this Bundesliga season: first versus second, rivals versus champions, up-and-comers versus of the establishment. Who are the real competitors? And who is simply wearing the suit?

For Xabi Alonso and his Leverkusen side, this entire campaign has been, in a way, a great exercise in self-deception. Around the turn of the century when they lost the Champions League final and finished second in the Bundesliga four seasons in six, the tag “Vizekusen” (Vize meaning “vice” or “second”) began to stick. They never won the title. And yet here they are: top of the table, the last unbeaten club in Europe’s big five leagues, able to take five points if they can beat Thomas Tuchel’s Bayern.

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And although the two clubs are only separated by a few points, the right distinction here is between attitude and opportunity. Bayern have won the last 11 Bundesliga titles, they are a contender this season, they will be a contender next season and the season after that. In the case of Leverkusen, there are no such guarantees. The same market forces that destroyed Kai Havertz and Moussa Diaby in recent years could also sweep Alonso away this summer. And so, if there’s an unrealistically faint sense of how good they’ve been this season, it’s also infused with a certain vulnerability. This, right here, is it. A golden chance that could be their last chance.

Perhaps this contributed to the unusual focus and cohesion surrounding the Leverkusen squad, a group of players who were determined to live in the moment. No rehearsals, no second chances. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a team this quick, this aggressive, this tactically good, this confident on the ball,” former Leverkusen manager Klaus Toppmöller wrote in his Kicker column this week. “Everything is perfectly prepared, offensively and defensively.”

At that point it is probably worth trying to explain what exactly Alonso – perhaps the most famous young coach in Europe – is doing there. Because it is not always easy to recognize. Leverkusen are a complex, shape-shifting group: three backs who often defend as a four, players rotating positions, a team equally comfortable on the blitz attack or in long periods of patient possession. And of course Alonso himself could be an AI-generated collector of the best coaching influences in the modern game: Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benítez, Vicente del Bosque, under whom he played at stages different of his. career.

But of course there are some non-issues: technical ability, versatility, tall wing backs. There are similarities with Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton in the way they try to draw the opposition in before spreading the play elsewhere. Granit Xhaka, signed from Arsenal in the summer, was a revelation in the middle, playing more advanced passes than any other player in Europe. In addition, Exequiel Palacios is second in the Bundesliga in terms of dribble success rate. Ahead of them, Florian Wirtz and Adam Hlozek are free to direct play as they see fit, creating a lethal triangle with top scorer Victor Boniface.

Meanwhile, the reaction in Bavaria was a mixture of anger and defiance. “Two points, that’s not a gap,” Tuchel claimed this week, but he will know better than anyone that this is a game that could make or break his Bayern career. He will also know that the comparisons with Alonso are not meant to soften him. He had very little playing career to speak of. His personal style is often characterized as somewhat brusque and aloof. There were the usual rumors about the dissatisfaction of the dressing room, a somewhat reactive style of football (possession is slightly reduced compared to the last few seasons), an over-reliance on Harry Kane’s goals.

But for all the justifiable criticism out there, it can be argued that Tuchel is doing an even better job, with more limited resources and against better opponents, than his predecessor, Julian Nagelsmann. Injuries, particularly in defence, have hit hard and as a result Eric Dier was quickly signed in January. Even now, he is without Alphonso Davies, Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry, with Joshua Kimmich still feeling his way back from injury and Manuel Neuer a doubt.

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All in all, Bayern are seven points better off than Nagelsmann’s side were at the same point last season. Leverkusen, beset by international call-ups and injuries of their own, have struggled in recent weeks to match the irresistible fluency they showed before Christmas. Boniface’s absence until April is a big loss for them. And it remains to be seen whether the crescendo of speculation over Alonso’s future – with Liverpool, Real Madrid and even Bayern themselves looking for a new manager in the summer – will affect the well-oiled machine running on a cocktail of pure vibes and go exquisite. .

Experience warns us what to expect. Bayern will always be held to a higher standard because in large part they have succeeded in achieving it. They don the clothes of the champions, and it is them. He hits. This is the institutional memory that has allowed them to overcome every challenger in the last 11 seasons. For Leverkusen, by contrast, history is not a comfort but an obstacle to overcome, a mask to wear.

Saturday’s game will not decide the title. But perhaps it tells us whether these two clubs are still who they think they are.

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