Matchday 20 of the 2016-17 Bundesliga throws up some interesting fixtures, with the potential for plenty of intriguing narratives to play out.
Keep Lahm and carry on
Not least for league leaders Bayern Munich, whose captain Philipp Lahm announced this week that he intends to retire at the end of the season. With question marks already hanging over how Carlo Ancelotti’s men are performing this season, will the shockwave of the former World Cup winning skipper’s announcement unsettle them further as they travel to take on relegation-threatened Ingolstadt?
They may be on course for a 27th league title and safely through to the knockout phase of the Champions League, but all is not well at the Allianz Arena.
A certain degree of drop-off had to be expected this season following Pep Guardiola’s departure for Manchester City and the arrival of the laid back Ancelotti. But the Italian’s methods are being scrutinised as the Bavarians continue to muddle through the season, scraping victories through sub-par performances.
Were it not for the red-hot form of Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, whose 23rd goal of the season was only enough to earn Bayern a point against Schalke last weekend, the reining champions would be in a much worse predicament.
Lahm’s retirement in itself has come as no shock, with rumours circulating for weeks that the current campaign could be the 33-year-old’s last. However, the club were surprised that he decided to make his plans known when he did, admitting that they were expecting to jointly confirm his retirement in the near future.
The unassuming full-back has been a calming influence throughout his career, but he might just have thrown a cat among the pigeons as Bayern prepare to take on Ingolstadt on Saturday, followed by the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Arsenal on Wednesday evening.
Prediction: Bayern Munich win
Dortmund back on track?
Borussia Dortmund, last season’s runners-up, overcame high-flying RB Leipzig last week. Thomas Tuchel’s men have clawed their way back into the top four and will be hoping to finally discover the kind of consistency that has eluded them so far this term.
Despite creating a slew of chances against the Red Bull-owned club, a single Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang header was enough to secure a crucial win for BVB.
The Black and Yellows travel to bottom of the table Darmstadt this weekend. With the Die Lilien rooted to the foot of the Bundesliga rankings, Dortmund will be confident of collecting all three points and rubber-stamping their return to form.
And if they can do so with minimal fuss, Tuchel will be thankful, as his side are set to take on Benfica when the Champions League resumes on Tuesday. Don’t be surprised to see the former Mainz coach shuffle his deck somewhat to enable a few of his key performers to be fresh for their trip to Lisbon.
Six points adrift of 17th-placed Ingolstadt, Darmstadt looked condemned to returning to the 2. Bundesliga after two seasons in the top flight. Former Dortmund midfielder Tortsen Frings took the reins at the Jonathan-Heimes-Stadion in December and will be hoping that the club he played for between 2002 and 2004 will do him a favour.
Prediction: Borussia Dortmund win
Another gut check for RB Leipzig
They may have won many neutral fans over with the football they have produced on their way to storming to the upper echelons of the table in their first ever top-flight campaign, but RB Leipzig remain the most hated team in Germany.
If any further confirmation of that fact was needed, it came in the form of the crowd trouble that erupted in Dortmund last weekend. So infuriated by the rise of the so-called “plastic club” were sections of BVB’s fans that 28 arrests were made following violent attacks on their East German counterparts.
The reverse at Signal Iduna Park was only Leipzig’s third defeat of the season. They showed their capacity to bounce back from disappointment with the way they put a December loss to Bayern out of their minds after the winter break, regrouping to record back-to-back victories.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side will need to demonstrate their resilience once again for the visit of a resurgent Hamburg to the Red Bull Arena.
Earlier this season, it looked as though the clock inside Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion which records, down to the second, how long they have been in the Bundesliga – they have never been relegated since the division was established – could be set to expire at the end of the campaign.
But Markus Gisdol’s men, currently third from bottom, have produced some encouraging results of late, beating Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 last weekend and overcoming high-flying Cologne in the DFB Pokal in midweek.
They will be underdogs when they travel to Leipzig, but there is now belief in Hamburg where they was previously only resignation and despair.
Prediction: RB Leipzig win
Schmidt or bust
Few managers need a result quite as desperately as Bayer Leverkusen’s Roger Schmidt this weekend. The 49-year-old former Red Bull Salzburg coach brought an exciting pressing philosophy to the BayArena in 2014, and helped mould an impressive young side into Champions League mainstays.
But this season has seen Leverkusen struggle. Despite having arguably the third-strongest squad in Germany – behind only Bayern and Dortmund – Schmidt’s side are currently languishing in ninth, with their prospects of qualifying for next season’s Champions League looking increasingly slim.
Bayer have won just once in their last five Bundesliga fixtures, and demonstrated a worrying fragility in last week’s 1-0 loss at the hands of Hamburg and in throwing away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 to Borussia Monchengladbach the week before.
They host third-placed Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday and Schmidt might have to engineer a victory over the unlikely Champions League qualification contenders in order to save his job.
Eintracht have been outstanding of late, save for the 3-0 defeat to RB Leipzig in the first game back after the winter break, and will hope to get a result at the BayArena to keep alive their hopes of qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition.
One of the key players behind their over-achievement this term has been 20-year-old centre-back Jesus Vallejo. The young defender is on loan from Real Madrid and has already been tipped to take over from Pepe at the Bernabeu, but Eintracht boss Niko Kovac hopes to keep the Spaniard at the Commerzbank-Arena for one more season.
Mainz vs Augsburg
Darmstadt vs Borussia Dortmund
Bayer Leverkusen vs Eintracht Frankfurt
RB Leipzig vs Hamburg
Ingolstadt vs Bayern Munich
Werder Bremen vs Borussia Monchengladbach
Schalke vs Hertha Berlin
Wolfsburg vs Hoffenheim
Freiburg vs Cologne