The match between Bayern Munich and FC Schalke 04 highlights this week’s Bundesliga fixtures. The two traditional powers meet this Saturday at Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, a venue where Schalke can defeat almost anyone, where England lost to Portugal in penalties in the quarterfinals of Germany 2006 and where the industrious Ruhr Valley crowd doesn’t care much for Robben, Ribery, and their former goalkeeper Neuer.
Bayern have followed a trophyless campaign by raiding Europe’s, and particularly the Bundesliga’s, second tier clubs for talent with a mind toward shoring up concerns over functional depth. The Bavarians are making a habit of following a disappointing season full of near-misses with a massive summer spending spree and an absolutely dominant League and Cup double. Then the cycle begins anew: Bayern finish second to one of Dortmund, Stuttgart or Bremen (curiously never Schalke), Uli Hoeness and company rake the team over the coals publicly, buy top talent from other Bundesliga teams who can’t afford to get into a bidding war with Bayern and then demolish all German opposition the next season.
The 2012/2013 campaign is of the redemption variety, and judging by their early performances Bayern are out for blood. The Bavarians have won their first three Bundesliga fixtures, including a 6-1 thrashing of a decent Stuttgart side, and looked comfortable in their opening game of the Champions League, a 2-1 victory over a defensive Valencia side. New signings Mandzukic, Dante, Shaqiri and Martinez have been impressive and although the squad doesn’t stack up with that of Manchester City and Real Madrid, depth shouldn’t be nearly the concern it has been recently. Bayern head to coal country (Gelsenkirchen is the Pittsburgh of Germany) looking for three points, and if they show up, I’d expect them to leave with all three.
Fortunately for Schalke, they’ve strengthened, as well. The Royal Blues have managed to hold onto their core group of players amid interest from bigger clubs, and have added some exciting attacking talent. Ibrahim Afellay joined from Barcelona just before the window closed, and the Netherlands international gives Huub Stevens a world-class option on the wing. Midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta, a Swiss international who’s been quietly plying his trade at Leverkusen for nearly a decade, joined in June on a Bosman. Those two, along with 2011 Bundesliga top scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, pacey Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfan. Twice-capped German international Julian Draxler and box-to-box center midfielder Lewis Holtby give Schalke one of the top duos in Germany. German-American Jermaine Jones is a solid midfielder, and Papadapoulos and Fuchs are stable defenders, although Fuchs has a tendency to spend much of his time in the attacking third. Stevens must be pleased with his team’s start to the season, having taken seven of nine points from their first three Bundesliga fixtures, and his men should be feeling confident following a 2-1 win at Olympiakos in the Champions League. Schalke has the horses to bother Bayern’s defense, but a shootout is the last thing they should be looking for, and I expect them to start conservatively and try to snag a goal for a 1-0 win.
I predict Bayern to win, but not definitively. An early goal from Schalke wouldn’t surprise me, but Bayern should have the ball most of the night and it’s extremely difficult to keep them off the scoresheet for 90 minutes. I’m a big believer in Schalke at home, where they enjoy a very tangible home-field advantage, but the Reds are all healthy and still angry. Prediction: Bayern 3-1, Robben scoring a brace.