FEATURE | Bundesliga Preview – Week 25: RB Leipzig host Freiburg in Champions League battle

Just 90 games stand between now and the end of the Bundesliga season, and there is still plenty to play for. But what should you keep an eye on during matchday 25?

RB Leipzig host Freiburg in Champions League battle

While RB Leipzig and Freiburg are level on points in the Bundesliga after 24 matches apiece, their statuses could hardly be different. Currently in fourth place, above the ‘Breisgau Brasilianer’ on goal difference, the former will surely be disappointed to be 18 points behind leaders Bayern and already out of the title race. After spending a league-leading €107.62m during the summer transfer window, Leipzig’s sacking of Jesse Marsch as the ‘Roten Bullen’ sat 11th in the table was hardly a surprise and, although Domenico Tedesco has reversed fortunes, anything other than a top-four finish will ultimately be deemed a failure.

Freiburg, meanwhile, continue to surprise, led by the ever-dependable Christian Streich. Now in his 11th year as manager of the Schwarzwald-based outfit, the 56-year-old has overseen steady progress at the club, and they are now one of the division’s most settled teams. Still, the extent of their form this season was unexpected – the 40-point haul they have already amassed is just eight less than they picked up throughout the whole of the last term.

This weekend, therefore, could go a long way to deciding who picks up the fourth Champions League qualification spot. Freiburg’s defence is the joint-best in the German top flight, and they will need to be at their best to keep out Christopher Nkunku, who already has 25 goals and 13 assists in all competitions this season. Expect a tight encounter at the Red Bull Arena on Saturday afternoon.

What Dortmund will turn up at Mainz?

Marco Rose’s appointment as head coach was meant to take Borussia Dortmund to the next level, but, if anything, the ‘Schwarzgelben’ have gone backwards. While the Ruhr-based outfit have 11 points more than at this stage last term, they are still eight points behind Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich and, barring an uncharacteristic collapse from the Bavarians, the title is out of reach for Dortmund once more. Couple that with their disappointing early exits from the DFB Pokal, the Champions League and, subsequently, the Europa League, and it is hard to see what Rose has improved.

Inconsistency has been one of the most significant issues. Recent 3-0 and 6-0 defeats of Union Berlin and Borussia Mönchengladach were bookended by an embarrassing 5-2 loss at home against Bayer Leverkusen and an underwhelming 1-1 draw with Augsburg. Only Bayern have scored more than Dortmund’s 64, but eight sides have conceded less, and it is this lack of stability that makes it hard to know what side will show up against Mainz this weekend.

They will need to bring their A-game against the ‘Nullfünfer’, whose improvement has been dramatic under Bo Svensson. After putting together the best Ruckrunde in the club’s history last term to not only stave off seemingly inevitable relegation but ultimately finish eight points above the drop, Mainz now sit ninth and remain in the hunt for a European spot. They come into this clash on the back of a four-game unbeaten run, with each of those opponents currently above them in the table. With a ten-point buffer over Freiburg in fifth place, Dortmund’s top-four spot looks secure, but that cannot be enough for a side of their history and objectives. Only a victory will put any pressure on Bayern – Rose will hope his team’s best side shines through.

Union back on track after wobble?

The January transfer window threatened to derail all of the progress Union had made this season as they continued their quest for a second successive season of European football. First, Marvin Friedrich, a rock for the ‘Eisernen’ at the back since making a move from Augsburg in 2018, switched to Borussia Mönchengladbach, before Max Kruse shocked Union supporters by transferring to Wolfsburg. These two were the second and third big-name departures of the season after Robert Andrich, who joined Bayer Leverkusen last summer and, just last week, it was announced Grischa Prömel will move to Hoffenheim at the end of the season.

In February, the side from the German capital suffered three consecutive Bundesliga defeats without scoring a goal, with two of those losses coming against lowly-placed Augsburg and Arminia Bielefeld. Despite their relative success, the departure of top players is the harsh reality of where Union stand financially amongst the Bundesliga’s big boys, and Urs Fischer’s men went into the last week in February in ninth position after sitting fourth at the start of the month.

The last few days could mark the start of a revival. Last Saturday, Union won 3-1 at home against Mainz to rise to seventh before getting the better of St. Pauli as they prevailed 2-1 in the DFB Pokal to reach the semi-finals for just the second time in their history. Next up is a trip to Wolfsburg, where Union will come up against former player Kruse and a ‘Wölfe’ side who have also improved recently. 

Kruse only spent 18 months in Berlin, but played a pivotal role in Union’s qualification for the Europa Conference League last season, even scoring in the last minute against RB Leipzig on the final day of the season to secure his side’s spot. He was expected to leave at the end of the campaign anyway, and admitted upon his exit that the financial benefits of the Wolfsburg deal were too good to turn down. While the Berlin contingent is likely to embrace the former German international before the match, they will be eager to show him he made the wrong decision, at least from a sporting perspective

Something’s got to give between Augsburg and Bielefeld

Matchday 25 throws up a massive game at the bottom of the table, as Arminia Bielefeld host Augsburg on Friday night. The two sides are 14th and 15th respectively in the Bundesliga table, and three points for either side could considerably boost their hopes of remaining in the top flight for another campaign.

One of the sides will find themselves in the unfamiliar position of dominating the ball. No team has averaged less than Bielefeld’s 38.4% possession, while Augsburg have managed 40.1%, worse than every outfit in the Bundesliga other than this weekend’s opponents. Unsurprisingly, the two relegation candidates are amongst the worst goalscorers in the division, so expect a cagey affair at the WWK Arena.

Bielefeld are, at least, sturdy at the back, having shipped just 32 times in their 24 league outings so far this term. That form follows from last year, when only six teams conceded less than Frank Kramer’s side, and they will need to remain stingy if they want to stave off the drop.

In January, Augsburg splashed out on the signing of USA starlet Ricardo Pepi following fresh investment from American businessman David Blitzer. The 19-year-old already has three goals in nine caps for the USMNT, but zero in six matches for his new team. Not only has he failed to score, he has started just three games and has not yet played a full 90 minutes – hardly what Markus Weinzierl and Co. will have expected when the Bavarian side parted with a club-record $20m fee to capture the teenager’s services. There could barely be a better time for him to open his account.

Can Leverkusen display improvement after humiliating defeat?

Before Bayern Munich’s visit to Bayer Leverkusen last October, the two sides were level on points at the top of the table after seven matches. It seemed as though a tight encounter awaited, but the reality was much different – the game was over as a contest within 40 minutes as the reigning champions raced into a 5-0 lead, with the hosts managing just a solitary consolation goal after the interval in response.

Since then, there have been ups and downs for the ‘Werkself’, but they have started 2022 in good form. Of their seven games this calendar year, they have won five, drawn one and lost one – exactly the record they had going into that previous clash against Bayern five months ago.

The hosts, meanwhile, are currently in the middle of a slump, at least by their standards. Since the winter break, they have already been on the losing side twice in the Bundesliga, with both defeats coming against teams in the bottom half of the table. They were also held by Red Bull Salzburg in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie and appear to have lost their edge. The individual quality of the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Müller and Leroy Sané means they often find a way to pick up points, but against a side of Leverkusen’s quality, that may not be enough.

The first goal in this match-up could well be crucial. No side has been in front for as long as Gerard Seoane’s men in the Bundesliga this season, not even the mighty Bayern. All of this points to a fascinating clash – but then again, we said that last time around.

Jon Radcliffe

 

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