Life, it seems, couldn’t be much simpler for Jupp Heynckes. His Bayern Munich team are setting records by the match, but ahead of Saturday’s über-clash against Borussia Dortmund, the veteran coach might be kept awake by one nagging question: which striker to play against the defending champions.
In perhaps the most famous musical of all time, ”The Sound of Music,” Austrian nuns ask the question ”How do you solve a problem like Maria?” in one of their songs.
Heynckes’ particular problem isn’t Maria, but Mario. Specifically, which one to play in the biggest match of the domestic season: Mandzukic or Gomez?
The good news for the Bayern coach is that all the pressure is on the visitors, after a 2-0 win against ten-man Freiburg on Wednesday left the Bavarians 11 points clear of third-placed Dortmund, and 10 ahead of Bayer Leverkusen.
Mandzukic has been a revelation since joining from Wolfsburg, who bought him once they knew that Edin Dzeko was heading for the exit. The Croat’s strike rate for the Wolves over two seasons was solid but unspectacular: 20 goals in 56 games. This season, he has already bagged nine in 12, making him joint top scorer.
That’s a place that Gomez knows all about.
The Stuttgart-born forward, 10 months older than Mandzukic , ended the season before last as top Bundesliga scorer, and his career stats are astonishing, with 128 goals in 217 games. Only one current player has scored more: Bayern’s third striker Claudio Pizarro, who has bagged 160 Bundesliga goals.
This month Gomez made an incredible comeback from injury, creating a goal within three minutes of making his first appearance of the season as a sub against Valencia in the Champions League. Better was to follow. In his first Bundesliga appearance of the season, Gomez came off the bench against Hannover and scored a lovely goal within 30 seconds.
But starting for the first time this season against Freiburg, Gomez looked off the pace, so Mandzukic should start against Dortmund.
Now, talent show fans will know that ”How do you solve a problem like Maria?” was turned into a popular Saturday night TV programme in the UK. So here are the key battle of the talents this Saturday at the Allianz Arena.
Mario Mandzukic v Neven Subotic
If Mandzukic gets the nod, he’ll be up against Serb centre back Neven Subotic. Dortmund trail Bayern this season largely because their usually mean defence has been porous. They have already conceded 15 goals, only 7 fewer than in the whole 2010-2011 campaign. Subotic has lacked his usual sharpness and concentration. No team has been as dangerous in the air as Bayern, and no player has scored more headers than Mandzukic. So if Subotic isn’t on top of his game, Mandzukic should add to his 4 headed goals.
Dante v Robert Lewandowski
At the other end of the pitch, Dante has been a revelation since arriving from Borussia Monchengladbach. ”When he came, Dante could not even assume he was a first choice player, but he has taken his chance,” said Heynckes. ”He is still modest, but has been a great buy. He is reliable, he plays almost flawlessly.” Bayern already have 10 clean sheets this season but the lanky Brazilian faces his biggest test against the champions. Robert Lewandowski has found his scoring form again, and his second goal last week at Mainz was of breathtaking quality. Lewandowski’s lone goal was the difference in the last match between the two teams and it could get hellish again for Dante.
Javi Martinez v Mario Götze
This match is the perfect chance for Martinez to prove that he is worth the record 40 million euros Bayern splashed out for him. Heynckes has eased in the Spaniard, who has yet to face a talent like Dortmund’s own Mario since arriving from Bilbao. Martinez needs to sit in front of Dante and ensure Götze doesn’t use his pace and vision to carve open the home defence, as he did when scoring the only goal of the game the last time the teams met at the Allianz.
Philip Lahm v Marco Reus
Bayern captain Lahm virtually jogged through the Freiburg match, pacing himself for the altogether tougher prospect of facing the dynamo Reus on Saturday evening. Like Dante, Reus proved a great buy from Gladbach and is now claiming a stake for a regular spot for the national team.
Dortmund need their key players to shine if they are to become the first team to inflict five straight defeats on the Bavarians. For Jürgen Klopp’s men, this is a must-win match to keep alive a realistic chance of retaining the Bundesliga title.
After Wednesday’s win in Feiburg, Bayern are sure to be to be crowned Herbstmeister and be top of the pile at Christmas. No team has ever been sure of that honour with three matches still to play.
“Spending the winter break on top is actually very, very important,” Lahm said. “We still have a couple of games and targets before the mid-season break. We want to extend our advantage in the Bundesliga, finish top of our Champions League group, and make the next round of the cup. We won’t lose our focus.”
In truth, Bayern were a little fortunate at Freiburg. They won an early penalty when Oliver Sorg handled, but Martinez escaped following a similar incident later in the first half. Still, playing against 10 men for 70 minutes, following Fallou Diagne’s red card, was the perfect preparation for Saturday.
When Anatoliy Tymoschuk scores, you know things are going your way.
Whatever happens on Saturday, history bodes well. Bayern Munich have been top at New Year 18 times. On all but four occasions they have gone on to win the title. A 13th win of this season against Dortmund will surely mean a Bundesliga winner’s medal for both Bayern Marios come May.
This weekend’s Bundesliga action gets underway on Friday with Dusseldorf against Eintracht Frankfurt. Then on Saturday we have Schalke v Monchengladbach LIVE at 15:30 before the big clash between Bayern and Dortmund at 1830. The action continues on Sunday with Hoffenheim v Bremen and Wolfsburg v Hamburg.