Bundesliga Tips: Leverkusen appeal in top-four race

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THE BUNDESLIGA is back and European football fanatic  Jack Lambden (@_JackL_) has taken a deep dive into the outright markets to share his favourite fancies ahead of the campaign's conclusion, focussing on the top of the table here.

The Bundesliga has been given the green light to return to action from 16th May – a decent standard of football for us to enjoy and make a surreal time slightly easier to deal with.

The German top-flight is one of the most exciting in world football, containing an abundance of talent in terms of players and managers. The COVID-19 situation may just mean that some of them stick around for longer at their current clubs rather than move for big money to the Premier League and La Liga alike.

One thing is for certain though, the in-demand stars will have a big part to play in a title race which is far from over; the race for the Champions League qualification spots and, further down the league, the fight to stay in the division.

Outright Winner

Bayern Munich hold a decent yet far from unassailable four-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga with nine matches remaining and have certainly enjoyed a more comfortable second half of the season in comparison to the first.

Hans-Dieter Flick was handed the reigns when the Niko Kovac experiment ultimately ended in November 2019 and has steered the team a mightily impressive 18 wins from 21 games.

Flick was, prior to his current appointment, perhaps best known as Joachim Low’s assistant of the German national team for eight years, often being ridiculed for dressing in matching middle-aged-dad-at-a-family-wedding type outfits alongside his boss.

The players have certainly taken to the 55 year-old though, settling quickly into the 4-2-3-1 formation that so many of the squad mainstays were familiar with for so long under Kovac’s predecessors like Jupp Heynckes, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola.

Along with the change in shape came a more solid defensive foundation and a couple of changes of personnel, namely the more regular featuring of Canadian full-back Alphonso Davies who has shone since making the left-back berth his own.

Flick was rewarded for the team’s brilliant form with a new 2 year deal back in April and has now added international legend Miroslav Klose to his team as assistant coach alongside the highly rated Danny Rohl who worked in the same role with Ralph Hassenhuttl at Southampton.

On the injury front, Corentin Tolisso will miss the remainder of the season. However, the Frenchman has been more of a Champions League regular as opposed to a domestic feature and, with the strength in depth Bayern have available, they should manage without the midfielder who has never really kicked on at the Allianz Arena.

Phillipe Coutinho, another player linked away, is the only other in the treatment room and suffered a set-back in his recovery from an ankle injury and could have played his last game for the club where he has re-established his reputation following a stop-start period in Barcelona.

That is a blow for Munich from a creative point of view, but I’d be confident that the Brazilian’s absence can be mitigated by the goalscoring talents of Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman.

It is interesting that six of the Bavarian club’s last seven Bundesliga defeats have come against arguably their four toughest remaining fixtures – namely Eintracht Frankfurt, Leverkusen, Monchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund – but I’d be surprised to see them lose more than once in their final few fixtures and sacrifice a 30th coronation as Germany’s number one.

Dortmund will know that any realistic chance of snatching the title rides on that crunch clash Bayern at an empty Signal Iduna Park. The lack of the famous yellow wall and 80,000 loyal fans cheering the team in that and all other home games may mean the team loses an edge that it has contained for so long but time will only tell.

They failed their most recent experience behind closed doors, losing 2-0 to PSG to crash out of the Champions League in the second leg of their last 16 clash which maybe draws questions about the young squad’s mentality in when there’s no immediate crowd to entertain.

Exploring the mentality further, any coach would be concerned about his side losing 15 points from winning and drawing positions in the league this season but when you’re Lucian Favre, that high intensity, end-to-end drama is all part and parcel of the way he sets his teams up to play.

Dortmund games are brilliant to watch but I’m sure even the most brazen BVB follower would like a tad more pragmatism from their side to close out leads and ultimately results when they hold them. There was no better example of the type of game I’m referring to then Die Borussen’s trip to Leverkusen earlier in the campaign when two goals conceded in as many minutes turned a 3-2 lead into a 4-3 loss.

On the plus side, the European exit allows for full focus on a push for a first title since 2011-12 – something Black and Yellow fans crave. The talent in the squad is amongst the most sought-after in the world with Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho at the top of the tree.

Question marks remain in the current climate about whether the pair will stay or pursue big-money moves to either Manchester United or Real Madrid (the most likely destinations), but should they carry on the form of the season to date when the game returns, we’re in for a treat.

It appears that Favre will have some niggling injuries to contend with in the early weeks of the campaign restart, with Jadon Sancho, Emre Can, Marco Reus and Dan-Axel Zagadou all set to miss the Revierderby with Schalke on matchday 26 so it maybe best to proceed with caution if backing BVB in the first couple of weeks.

The third side to throw into the mix, just a point behind Dortmund, are RB Leipzig. The Saxony-based club are probably the country’s most unpopular club due to their ties with the energy drinks giant Red Bull but even their haters would find it hard to deny the team’s success over the 10 year period of their existence.

Julian Nagelsmann was prized from Hoffenheim last summer and has taken Leipzig to the next level, playing some marvellous football with the club’s seemingly never ending supply line of talent gaining international admirers.

The manager’s tactical flexibility and insistence on aggressive pressing out of possession, which he explains so effortlessly in press briefings, surely has him destined for the top considering how much he has achieved at just 32 years-old.

The suspension seemed to come at just the wrong time for Leipzig (I mean, it didn’t for anyone of course). The team has had some thumping victories this season, including an 8-0 win over Mainz (unsurprisingly the club’s record scoreline), but draws – eight in total – have cost them dearly in an ambitious pursuit of the title.

Die Rotten Bullen will be boosted by the return of club captain Willi Orban who has missed around 6 months through a broken leg. The centre-back adds to an impressive spine, the most impressive player of which is front man Timo Werner who is very likely to be sold in the summer.

Werner’s 21 goals in 25 league games will be hard to replace but it’s a threat that clubs like Leipzig and Dortmund have become accustomed to – having to sell top players who are tempted by moves to elite teams. In both cases though, you would be confident that replacements, if not already at the club, will be lined up already with Leipzig having such strong links to their Salzburg counterparts.

Leipzig’s remaining fixtures are relatively kind on paper but I think they may have too much to do to catch Bayern Munich and that a second place finish, with Dortmund to play at Red Bull Arena, is more realistic. Certainly a team to look at for future years though if the price appeals.

Ultimately, Bayern’s 2/9 best price on retaining their crown reflects their superiority and there’s no value to be had in the title odds in my view. I’d be interested to see the odds on a treble (Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and Champions League) win for Munich mind, as they’re in a decent position to land all three.

Top 4 Finish

Perhaps more intriguing than the title race is the battle for 4th place and the final Champions League group stage slot for next season. Monchengladbach, despite sitting just six points off leaders Bayern Munich, will know that the chances of overtaking all three sides above them to finish first are very slim and a top four finish would represent success.

The team do not have the firepower of the sides above them in the table at present, although French duo Marcus Thuram and Alassane Plea have linked up superbly to contribute both goals and assists for each other.

Gladbach’s home form has historically been very good but this season it is a real standout. At Borussia-Park they have earned 2.23 points per-game compared to 1.67 on their travels, a nine-point difference in total and from September to February the team recorded eight consecutive home wins, including a win over the mighty Bayern Munich.

It proves what Marco Rose’s men are capable of but I’m not convinced by them for two main reasons. Denis Zakaria’s injury lay-off is a big blow as someone who protects the backline so well and as one of the best passers of the ball in the squad (86.7% completion rate across the domestic fixtures).

Secondly, the fixtures left for Die Fohlen look tough, including the reverse fixture against Bayern who will surely be looking for revenge and a crucial encounter against fellow top four contenders Bayer Leverkusen which could well decide who makes the Champions League cut.

Leverkusen’s odds of finishing in the top four are currently set at 11/8 with Bet365 and has been shortening for months as their season gradually began to turnaround. I think this represents some value still though when factoring in that slim one point deficit to Gladbach who they will face on 22nd May, plus the form they were in right up to March – 11 wins in 13 matches in all competitions. I’ll be backing it for a few reasons, including that form.

The squad, barring any hiccups in the next few days, is only missing forward Kevin Volland who is expected to return in the coming weeks and has a good mix of youth and experience throughout. Once Volland is back fit, he will likely resume his budding on-field relationship with the brilliant Kai Havertz.

The latter has now played 139 games for the club at the age of just twenty which is a pretty extraordinary feat. Although he will fall short of the 17 goal haul of 2018-19, it’s been another positive season for the Aachen born playmaker who looks destined for the Premier League at some point in his career with such good physical and technical traits to his game. If the youngster returns to action where he left off, Leverkusen will keep picking up points.

Havertz takes the headlines but there’s plenty of players in this squad who have thrived under the vibrant style of Peter Bosz, another coach who likes his teams to win the ball back high up the pitch and create a number of opportunities each match. Goalkeeper Lucas Hradecky has become more consistent and the likes of Kerem Demirbay and Sven Bender keep the team ticking, their work often going unnoticed but benefitting the system massively.

Although Leverkusen are all but through to the Europa League quarter-finals following a 3-1 first leg lead over Rangers, their best chance of qualifying for the Champions League is undoubtedly a 4th place finish in the Bundesliga and I think, with only two of the top eight left to play, they are in the best overall shape to achieve it.

Best Bets

Bundesliga – Bayer Leverkusen to finish in the top four (11/8 Bet365)

 

About Author

I've been betting on football since 2011, a year when I made a fair bit of money on Southampton to win each home game after a New Year's resolution to be more optimistic about my side’s chances. After 21 wins at St Mary’s out of 22, I’d built up a fair pot of money! I enjoy researching (almost!) as much as the winning, using a combination of stats, team news, context and general football knowledge to make my selections. Outside of football, you’ll find me down the pub enjoying a few pints or at a gig most likely if the girlfriend will allow it!

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