When all is said and done this season, it’s hard not to wonder if RB Leipzig will reflect on a huge opportunity missed in mid-March. Buoyed by a run of six successive league wins, Julian Nagelsmann had a chance on a sunny, early Spring afternoon to set a new personal best in terms of consecutive victories on the trot. What must be galling for Nagelsmann is the knowledge that opponents Eintracht Frankfurt, an extremely watchable side, struggled to hit their usual high notes.
The game was there for the taking, but Leipzig failed to rise to the occasion, instead, settling for 1-1 draw to fall four points behind leaders Bayern Munich.
Granted, Leipzig began promisingly with their usual blend of high pressing, speed and precision. Frankfurt couldn’t get out of their own half, and both Justin Kluivert and Emil Forsberg had chances to open the scoring. Much of the rest of the first half, in which Leipzig lost Dayot Upamecano to injury, was of the sleepy Sunday variety.
Leipzig came roaring out of the blocks after the interval and when Forsberg put them ahead almost straight away, you sensed there was more to come from the Nagelsmann’s men. Instead, they lost their rhythm and allowed Frankfurt to make a little go a very long way.
The goal Leipzig conceded on 61 minutes, especially by a team boasting the tightest defence in the Bundesliga, was annoying to say the least. Too much space was granted to both Andre Silva, the architect, and Daichi Kamada, the finisher. The damage was done and Leipzig simply didn’t show enough after that. In what was a scrappy game, they created more than Frankfurt but to win a title at Bayern’s expense, you simply have to go above and beyond the merely adequate.
Every Autobahn (“highway”) now leads to what should be a colossal showdown with Bayern at the Red Bull Arena on April 3. But before that, the Landstrassen (country roads) will take us to some interesting destinations this weekend.
Leipzig open Matchday 26 on Friday with a trip to Bielefeld. It might seem like a gentle examination, but just before Nagelsmann’s team faced Frankfurt, Arminia were getting the better of Bayer Leverkusen at the Bay Arena. Bielefeld recently changed coaches, going from Uwe Neuhaus to Frank Kramer. Three games into his spell in charge, Kramer has lifted Bielefeld to the promised land of safety.
Leipzig have been warned, and the continued absence of Angelino means they once again are bereft of their best attacking weapon as a crosser and runner with the ball on the left.
Yet Bayern can’t expect a picnic when Stuttgart come to the Allianz Arena on the back of a five-game unbeaten run. I have previously extolled the virtues of New Jersey-born coach Pellegrino Matarazzo in this space; I genuinely think he’s one of the hottest coaching commodities in the Bundesliga.
Stuttgart are set up for the lethal counter and do so with prescient timing. It also helps to have forward Silas Wamangituka as the centrepiece of those lightning-fast breaks. Bayern’s oft-uncertain defence had better be ready as Matarazzo, an applied mathematician by degree, identifies the correct angles of attack. He’s rather adept at that.
If we look beyond this weekend and the April 3 “Spitzenspiel” (marquee game), I’m not sure a case can be made that one team has a more difficult run-in than the other. Both have to play Champions League-chasing Wolfsburg but otherwise, we’re talking about completely different opponents for each team.
Leipzig must still play Borussia Dortmund on the weekend of May 8, against whom they’ve had one or two problems, including already this season. The two sides may in fact meet again five days later in the DFB Pokal final and that should indeed be the cup decider in Berlin should everything go according to plan and form.
So my concerns for Leipzig have more to do with the timing and the scale of the task. Above all else, they dearly want their first major trophy and the fact is the cup route offered is one that consists of playing just two more games, albeit one of them likely to be against Dortmund.
The Meisterschale (Bundesliga trophy) represents a much heavier lift. First, RB Leipzig have to get closer to Bayern, ideally before April 3 but at the latest, within a point by winning their head-to-head with the Rekordmeister (championship record holders). Meanwhile Bayern are in the pleasant position of having a fairly comfortable cushion again and of course, significantly, they know better than anyone how to prosper with such a following wind.
Leipzig’s inability to defeat a below-par Frankfurt side adds difficulty to an already onerous assignment. It’s now firmly Bayern’s title to lose.