It is now February, which usually means that some teams are (finally) reassessing their objectives. Lessons have been learned – if you started the season with hopes of winning the league, but find yourself in a fourth-place-scrap, forget about catching Man City/PSG/Bayern/other Goliath. Do what you can, go for the minimum.
But what if the lessons have been a little unusual? Leverkusen, sixth in the final table and 21 points off Bayern in a very mediocre Bundesliga (Union Berlin made it to the Champions League, mind you), did not win a single one of their last seven games last season. What were their expectations for this one?
One would imagine “go unbeaten in the first 30 games” was not that high on the list, but after a dramatic cup tie vs Stuttgart, where they came from behind twice and scored a 90th-minute winner, that is exactly where they are. 30 games or six months into the season, and not a single team has cracked them yet.
This must be quite a surprise for Xabi Alonso as well. For someone who was coaching the Real Madrid U14 team just five years ago, for someone who spent three mediocre years at Real Sociedad B in the Segunda’s before being released, this is a whole new world. Leverkusen is his first chance at this level, and, well, so far it seems that he might get a second one too.
Will that place be Liverpool, who are looking for someone to succeed Jürgen Klopp in the summer? Should it be? He certainly understands Anfield after spending five seasons there as a player and has the pedigree to assert himself. But Liverpool are supposedly looking for a manager who would fit their current high-octane style, and Alonso’s Leverkusen is nothing like that. They are all about control. Control the ball, control the opponent.
Even if Alonso and Leverkusen win the Bundesliga, could the step up come too soon? Have we seen enough? Time will help answer a lot of questions, but Liverpool do not have the time. They will have to commit at some point – and so does Alonso. His big test is only just beginning.
Who will lead the Bundesliga table after Saturday, and what other games to enjoy over the weekend?
All times listed below are in Eastern European Standard Time (GMT+2).
Bayer Leverkusen – Bayern Munich
A season ago, 71 points were enough for Bayern to win their eleventh (!) consecutive league title; at the moment, they are on course to gather 85 points this season, a total they have not reached since Pep Guardiola left in 2016. But even that might not be enough, as after 20 games, they find themselves trailing Leverkusen by two points.
When the two teams met on September 15th, Leverkusen came from behind twice and earned a 2-2 draw thanks to a penalty in added time. Bayern were probably the better side that day, but going away to the BayArena will be a tough ask. This will be an immensely important game, but this is Bayern we are talking about. Somehow, they can lose those games and still win in the end.
Real Madrid – Girona
Another unexpected top-of-the-table clash. Girona has always been something of a bogey team for Real, as their head-to-head is perfectly balanced at 3 wins for both. In September, Real comfortably won 3-0 away – but Girona has not lost again, with 17 wins and five draws in the league so far. Real has a two-point advantage, meaning a win here would give some breathing space.
Some things always happen at the worst times and a knee injury for top scorer Artem Dovbyk is a perfect example. Without the Ukrainian, who has scored 14 goals in 21 games, Girona were held to a 0-0 draw against Real Sociedad last weekend; it is speculated, but not confirmed, that his season could be over. Is anyone able to pick up the slack?
Aston Villa – Manchester United
Aston Villa need a good result here to continue their push for the top four, but in a way, this game can not come soon enough – this will be their fifth game in 17 days. No wonder they look a bit fatigued. A draw and a loss against Chelsea, a loss to Newcastle, and a deceitful 5-0 win over Sheffield United (xG 2.34 to 1.27). Villa might be running on fumes at this point.
Manchester United have started 2024 strongly result-wise, but looking into it, things are not much better. In their 3-0 win over West Ham, they lost the xG battle (0.81 to 1.74), and giving up a two-goal lead against Wolverhampton demonstrated mental fragility. Their shooting boots are saving them at the moment – in their last five games, United has converted 20% of shots into goals, while in their previous five, the same rate was just 3%.
The Betis Babble
OlyBet is the proud betting partner of Real Betis.
Next game: Friday 22:00 vs Cadiz
If something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. This time, the duck being Real Betis last week when a 1-1 draw against Getafe was almost inevitable. Betis has now drawn eleven times in 23 games, with eight of those 1-1. Talk about stability.
They are hoping for better though, as indicated by late movements in the transfer market. They spent more than 10 million euros to lure midfielder Pablo Fornals (West Ham) as well as strikers Chimy Avila (Osasuna) and Cedric Bakambu (Galatasaray) on the final day, indicating that fighting on two fronts might be in order.
This week, a late Friday kick-off at Cadiz will be in order. The home team are in the bottom three and have not won a league game since September 1st. They have plenty of draws, though, including their last two matches, both 0-0…