When Bayern Munich host Bayer Leverkusen on Friday, the German champions will take on a side transformed into genuine Bundesliga title hopefuls under coach Xabi Alonso.
Spearheaded by England captain Harry Kane, Bayern have started the league season with three straight wins but face one of Germany and Europe’s most exciting sides.
Taking over with the team in the relegation zone in October 2022, Alonso helped right the ship, taking Leverkusen to a Europa League place, while pushing them to the semi-finals of the same competition last season.
A smart transfer window headlined by the arrivals of former Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka, Germany winger Jonas Hofmann and Nigeria striker Victor Boniface, who was named Bundesliga player of the month on Wednesday, has Leverkusen primed for a shot at Bayern’s crown.
“They are really strong, a very good team with a very good coach,” Bayern boss Thomas Tuchel said on Thursday.
“I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a night game, which is the right setting for a match like this.”
After lifting Champions League trophies as a player with Real Madrid and Liverpool, Alonso also had a successful time in Germany, winning three Bundesliga titles in his three years at Bayern.
“I had a beautiful time in Munich, it was a great honour for me,” Alonso said on Thursday.
Success has followed Alonso wherever he has gone and it is a pedigree which Alonso will hope continues.
Despite a list of former stars including Michael Ballack, Toni Kroos, Arturo Vidal and Kai Havertz, Leverkusen — known disparagingly as ‘Neverkusen’ — are the nearly men of German football.
Alongside a loss in the 2002 Champions League final to Real Madrid, they have been Bundesliga runners-up five times but have never won the title.
Ten years older than the Spaniard, Tuchel admitted Alonso had been an influence on his coaching career.
“I learned a lot about football from watching Alonso,” Tuchel said.
“I learned a lot about the game and its strategies. He showed that to me and to everyone who thinks intensively about football.”
Last season, the meetings between these sides had big consequences — at least in the dug-out.
Then Leverkusen boss Gerardo Seoane was sacked after Bayern won 4-0 in Munich, bringing Alonso to the helm.
In the reverse fixture, a 2-1 Leverkusen victory over Bayern proved to be Julian Nagelsmann’s last match in charge, with Tuchel coming in as his replacement.
While neither coach will face the sack after Friday’s match, Alonso was quietly confident.
“If everything goes well for us, we have a chance. I have a good feeling about tomorrow.”
One to watch: Youssoufa Moukoko (Borussia Dortmund)
Borussia Dortmund’s high-profile signing of Germany striker Niclas Fuellkrug on deadline day has threatened to overshadow what was set to be a breakout season for 18-year-old forward Youssoufa Moukoko.
After scoring 141 goals in 88 games for Dortmund’s youth teams, he has struggled to find opportunities in the top flight, starting just 10 of 26 league games last season as he fell behind Sebastien Haller in the pecking order.
Moukoko’s chance may come now due to an injury to Fuellkrug and Haller’s poor form, particularly after he scored a brace in Germany’s Under-21 match with Kosovo on Tuesday.
“I’m happy with the three points — we can fly home with pride,” Moukoko, who now has eight goals in five Under-21 Euro qualifiers, said after the match.
Nine: Only Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen have claimed all available points on offer after three games this season.
Four: Alongside Bayern and Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt are the only other unbeaten sides in the league.
Zero: Promoted Darmstadt are the only team without a point.
Fixtures (all times 1330 GMT unless otherwise indicated)
Bayern Munich v Bayer Leverkusen (1830)
Freiburg v Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg v Union Berlin, Mainz v Stuttgart, RB Leipzig v Augsburg, Cologne v Hoffenheim, Bochum v Eintracht Frankfurt (1630)
Heidenheim v Werder Bremen, Darmstadt v Borussia Moenchengladbach (1530)