Already shaping up to become one of the most memorable campaigns in recent history, the 2016/17 Bundesliga season promises plenty of intrigue when it resumes from its mid-winter break this week. Ahead of an imminent return to the action, the questions are numerous: Can FC Bayern München make it a record five title wins in a row? Can RB Leipzig maintain their challenge at the top of the standings? Will Borussia Dortmund, who performed so well in the UEFA Champions League group stage, close the gap on the league leaders following a somewhat inconsistent start? Indeed, every top-flight team will play their part in the saga that’s set to unfold before our expectant eyes.
The reigning champions – under new coach Carlo Ancelotti – confidently strode into their title defence in the opening games of the current campaign. Home draws against 1. FC Köln and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, as well as a narrow defeat to Dortmund in the first league Klassiker of the season, allowed newly-promoted Leipzig to briefly top the table, before the Bavarians roared back to comprehensively beat the top-flight debutants on 21 December and reclaim their lead prior to the winter break.
“We can be largely satisfied – but we definitely need to improve further and shift up another gear in 2017,” said Bayern captain Philipp Lahm. The acquisition of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim stars Niklas Süle and Sebastian Rudy, who will join the record champions in the summer, will make Ancelotti’s troops an even more fearsome prospect next season. Their immediate priority, though, is Friday’s trip to eighth-place SC Freiburg in the Matchday 17 opener.
Despite that Matchday 16 setback against the title holders, Leipzig’s terrific top-flight tale continues to enthral. The Saxony-based side hit scintillating form as they pressed and counter-attacked opponents into submission during the opening half of the season. Amassing eight consecutive Bundesliga wins, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s young team tore into the record charts, becoming the first newly-promoted team to remain unbeaten after 13 games.
Losing twice in December may have tempered Leipzig’s confidence but what better way for the Bundesliga upstarts to test their resolve than with a Matchday 17 challenge against fourth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday? Teenage French defender Dayot Upamecano, signed recently from FC Salzburg, is in line to make his Bundesliga debut.
Relegation contenders last term, Frankfurt have been flying under coach Niko Kovac this time around, with the Eagles earning some notable results in an unbeaten run at their Commerzbank Arena fortress. Defensive solidity and stand-out performances from the likes of Jesus Vallejo, Branimir Hrgota and Marco Fabian, to name a few, mean Kovac’s side are in rude health as they look to maintain their challenge for a UEFA Champions League spot in the coming weeks and months.
Sitting just above Eintracht in the standings, Hertha Berlin occupy third spot over the winter break for a second successive season. The Old Lady have maintained their consistency under the guise of coach Pal Dardai, while star forward Vedad Ibisevic has struck eight goals to date as Hertha racked up nine wins in the division. A tricky trip to Bayer 04 Leverkusen – themselves seeking some of Hertha’s steady form after an indifferent start – is next up for the capital outfit on Sunday.
On Saturday, FC Augsburg host another of the Bundesliga’s surprise sides in Hoffenheim – the only team in Europe’s top five leagues with their unbeaten league record still intact. As well as Sandro Wagner’s nine goals, Hoffenheim’s progress has been powered by Julian Nagelsmann’s fresh approach. The 29-year-old – the Bundesliga’s youngest permanent head coach – has overseen ten draws and six wins to take the south-western team to fifth in the table.
Meanwhile, Thomas Tuchel will seek to eke out a little more from his Dortmund players, who travel to face SV Werder Bremen. Despite producing some fine form in European competition, the Yellow-Blacks have won just seven of 16 Bundesliga games this term and thus find themselves 12 points off leaders Bayern. With the German top-flight’s leading goalscorer – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (16 goals) – on international duty at the African Cup of Nations, Dortmund’s test will be that much trickier after the restart.
Elsewhere, Borussia Mönchengladbach want to rise up the standings under new coach Dieter Hecking while FC Schalke 04 – currently eleventh – are hoping to arrest a four-game winless run. With 13 goals to his name, 1. FC Köln striker Anthony Modeste is in sight of Aubameyang at the top of the goalscoring standings. At the other end of the table, there will be significant challenges facing Hamburger SV, with coach Markus Gisdol’s team eyeing a fresh start in the New Year