Bayern Munich and Schalke lock horns at the Allianz Arena on Saturday evening in the standout game of the weekend. Bayern face a team looking to make a statement of intent, but the champions are in irresistible form.
A 6-0 drubbing of third-tier Paderborn is not exactly a litmus test of form, but Bayern Munich are looking close to their irrepressible best again.
Since losing 2-1 to Borussia Mönchengladbach in late November, Bayern have reeled off 13 consecutive victories in all competitions. They are 18 points clear at the top of the table and pending other results, could be crowned champions as soon as March 4, which would be a new Bundesliga record.
Arjen Robben scored two late goals in Paderborn and could be in line to return to the team on Saturday, but Thomas Müller is a doubt having come off injured after only 32 minutes. Javi Martinez and Jerome Boateng are back in contention and Thiago Alcantara is approaching a return having returned to full training — and coach Jupp Heynckes is clearly itching to have him back.
"Thiago has been impressive in training, but won't be available on Saturday," Heynckes said. "But we're very happy to have such a class player back."
Schalke searching for form
Schalke have been impressive under coach Dominic Tedesco this season, but have hit some rockier form of late, winning only one of their last four Bundesliga games and losing to Werder Bremen and RB Leipzig since the turn of the year — a combination of results that has seen them slip to fifth, albeit just a point behind second-placed Leverkusen.
Their narrow 1-0 win over Wolfsburg in the German Cup in midweek wasn't pretty, but it offers some indication that Schalke are returning to winning ways. Guido Burgstaller scored the winning goal to send Schalke into the last four, but the striker is without a goal in five Bundesliga games and Schalke need him to be on song to have a chance of downing Bayern.
Leon Goretzka has been Schalke's leading man this season but is short of top form after injury. Some Schalke fans have not accepted his decision to join Bayern, but the coaches of his current and next club both say he has the character to handle the occasion.
"Of course, Leon Goretzka is looking forward to the game," Tedesco said on Friday. "It's always tough to face Bayern and the challenge will motivate him." Heynckes added his support, saying: "I think that the young man is very calm and copes well with the fans' criticism."
There are a few subplots to this game, but one of the areas of interest is Leon Goretzka versus Arturo Vidal, the man who Goretzka looks set to replace in the Bayern team next season. Vidal has been in fine form of late and has notched up six leagues goals this season, already his best Bundesliga goal return since joining from Juventus in 2015. Goretzka will have his work cut out, but will be focused on making a statement against his future employers.
Elsewhere, the head-to-head between James Rodriguez and Max Meyer has the potential to decide which way the game goes. Meyer has been transformed into a holding midfielder under Tedesco and is reveling in his new role, but James Rodriguez is in the best form of his short Bayern career at the moment, with Heynckes starting to get the best out of the Colombian. Rodriguez has scored or assisted in all three of his Bundesliga games since the winter break and is fast becoming the central figure at Bayern. Meyer is about to face the biggest test of whether he is a permanent option anchoring the midfield.
Elsewhere on Matchday 21
Hamburg vs Dortmund: A big game on Saturday afternoon in Hamburg as Borussia Dortmund come to town. Hamburg are desperate for a win as they find themselves four points from safety and Cologne now only four points behind. Peter Stöger's Dortmund also need the points to keep pace in the race for Champions League football, having been held to draws in three of their last four games. But a fine debut by Michy Batshuayi has given Dortmund hope that they can reassert themselves at the front of the chasing pack.
Bayer Leverkusen vs Hertha Berlin: Leverkusen face a big test in the shape of Hertha Berlin as they look to remain in the driving seat in the chasing pack behind Bayern Munich. Since losing to Bayern in the first game after the winter break, Heiko Herrlich's side beat Hoffenheim and Mainz back-to-back, but were held by Freiburg last weekend. Hertha meanwhile are still seeking a first win in 2018, having drawn their last three.
Werder Bremen vs Wolfsburg: A game between two sides whose runs in the German Cup came to an end this week, and turn their attentions to staying in the Bundesliga. Werder's position in the table is the most precarious, sitting level on points with Mainz and just three points clear of Hamburg in 17th. Wolfsburg will also want to ease their fears of getting sucked into the danger zone.
Matchday 22 fixtures:
RB Leipzig vs. Augsburg (Friday, 8:30 p.m. CET)
Bayer Leverkusen vs Hertha Berlin (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.)
Borussia Dortmund vs. Hamburg
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Cologne
Hannover vs. Freiburg
Hoffenheim vs. Mainz
Bayern Munich vs. Schalke (Saturday, 6:30 p.m.)
Stuttgart vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach (Sunday, 3:30 p.m.)
Werder Bremen vs. Wolfsburg (Sunday, 6:00 p.m.)