As the Bundesliga resumes, Goal.com previews a match that could make or break Leverkusen’s title chances.
For the second year running, Leverkusen had a strong showing in the first half of the season. Die Werkself resume play in third place, level on points with Mainz, but still have a chance at winning the Bundesliga title. Given Dortmund’s limited propensity to drop points, in order to remain in the race, victory on Friday is almost a necessity. Such a result would cut the gap to a manageable seven points, whereas a loss would effectively end a chance for glory for Jupp Heynckes’ men.
There is reason to believe that in contrast to previous years, when they have struggled in the second half of the season, Leverkusen will rise to the occasion in 2011. Michael Ballack is not quite at peak fitness, but is well on his way to a full recovery after sustaining consecutive crippling injuries. As well, Stefan Kiessling, Gonzalo Castro, Renato Augusto and skipper Simon Rolfes are finally at 100%, meaning that for the first time in ages, Heynckes will have a full arsenal of options at his disposal.
Should Leverkusen’s stars remain healthy, this spring could be a very fruitful one. Their trajectory has in recent years been a positive one, and with complete fulfillment of their potential, die Werkself could yet win their first title in 18 years.
Kagawa-less Dortmund Raring To Go
The hindrunde of the Bundesliga could hardly have gone any better for Dortmund, who barely missed out on a Bundesliga points record for points in a fall campaign. Currently 10 points clear of Leverkusen—and 14 ahead of 2010 league winners Bayern, the title is now considered BvB’s to lose. A recent poll suggested as much, with 70% of Bundesliga coaches labeling the Ruhr side runaway favourites for the title.
There still remain 17 matches to play, though, and BvB will have their share of obstacles to overcome in order to finish the season atop the table. In particular, Dortmund will have to do without talismanic playmaker Shinji Kagawa for as many as three matches. The 21-year old, who has been hailed by many as the Bundesliga’s best player of the fall campaign is currently at the Asian Cup with Japan, and his replacement remains subject for speculation: Juergen Klopp remained coy on the issue, claiming that Mohamed Zidan, Tamas Hajnal and Mario Goetze are all candidates for the role.
On the pus side, Klopp’s men managed to win their most recent friendly against Basel by a 4-0 margin: it appears that even without Kagawa, the leaders are ready to hit the ground running as the spring campaign begins.
Michael Ballack is fit once more after a lengthy injury absence, but the veteran is expected only to feature as a second half substitute. Burak Kaplan is the only definite absentee among Jupp Heynckes' men, although Arturo Vidal is currently rated as questionable.
Probable Starting XI: Adler –Schwaab, Friedrich, Reinartz, Castro - Vidal, Rolfes - Renato Augusto, Sam - Helmes, Kiessling
In the absence of Kagawa, Mario Goetze is expected to deputise, although Mohamed Zidan remains an option for Juergen Klopp. Lucas Barrios is expected to be fit in time for Friday's match, but Robert Lewandowski could start if the Paraguay striker is not 100%. Patrick Owomoyela, Sebastian Kehl and Florian Kringe are all in training, but have all been ruled out of contention to play.
Probable Starting XI: Weidenfeller – Piszczek, Subotic, Hummels, Schmelzer - Bender, Sahin - Kuba, Goetze, Grosskreutz - Barrios