Franck Ribery warned Bayern Munich face a tricky test at Bayer Leverkusen on Friday as they resume their march towards a sixth straight Bundesliga title following the German winter break.
Jupp Heynckes’s team are 11 points clear of second-place Schalke but Leverkusen, who are two points further back in fourth, are unbeaten in 14 matches dating back to September under ex-Dortmund coach Heiko Herrlich.
Bayern rounded out 2017 with six successive wins in all competitions, surging into the new year firmly on course to retain their title after a brief wobble that cost Carlo Ancelotti his job in September.
But Leverkusen are looking to become only the third club after Hoffenheim and Borussia Moenchengladbach to beat Bayern in the league this season.
With six goals and four assists, Leverkusen’s outstanding player in the first half of the season was 20-year-old Jamaican winger Leon Bailey, who has thrived since joining from Belgian club Genk last January.
Both Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski and defender Mats Hummels are recovering from knee and groin injuries respectively, while right-back Joshua Kimmich has a cold.
Leverkusen warmed up for Bayern with a 2-2 draw in a friendly against third-tier Preussen Muenster as Argentina striker Lucas Alario netted both goals following his recovery from a groin injury.
Bayern stepped up their preparations with a 5-3 win over third-division Grossaspach on Tuesday when veteran winger Franck Ribery, 34, scored three goals in a starring display.
“It will be tough at Leverkusen and we will have to give our all to win there,” said the Frenchman.
Ribery and Arjen Robben are out of contract at the end of the season, but both hope to be offered an extension in the coming months.
“I have five months left and there are always many options,” said Ribery.
– Heynckes to stay on? –
Likewise, Bayern are trying to talk Heynckes into staying on as head coach past the end of the season.
The 72-year-old insists he will leave in May, having turned the team’s fortunes around since replacing Ancelotti when Bayern were five points adrift of then-leaders Borussia Dortmund.
Germany forward Thomas Mueller said Bayern are back at their best after struggling with fatigue through the final weeks of last year, even if results did not show it.
“The joy of playing is back again,” said Mueller. “If we all stay fit that will definitely help, but we also need good combinations, lots of movement off the ball, plus to mix up the tempo.”
Another positive for Mueller is the arrival of Germany striker Sandro Wagner from Hoffenheim, with the burly centre-forward recruited to serve as back-up to the prolific Lewandowski.
The 30-year-old Wagner, who made his international debut ahead of the Confederations Cup in Russia, could well feature at Leverkusen.
Leverkusen boss Herrlich was on Tuesday fined 12,000 euros ($14,368) by the German FA for his theatrical sideline dive in a 1-0 German Cup win against Gladbach last month.
The 46-year-old later said he was ashamed of his actions after dramatically tumbling to the ground after faint contact with Gladbach’s Denis Zakaria in the technical area.
Fixtures (all times 1430 GMT unless stated)
Bayer Leverkusen v Bayern Munich (1930)
Werder Bremen v Hoffenheim, Eintracht Frankfurt v Freiburg, Augsburg v Hamburg, Hanover 96 v Mainz, Stuttgart v Hertha Berlin, RB Leipzig v Schalke (1730)
Cologne v Borussia Moenchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund v Wolfsburg (1700)