Bundesliga 2024 predictions: Can Leverkusen hold off Bayern?


The Bundesliga didn’t waste time shifting into gear in its return to action last week. Jadon Sancho recorded a beautiful, game-clinching assist to Marco Reus in his first match back with Borussia Dortmund. Eintracht Frankfurt weathered 31 shots, blocking 12 and getting eight saves from Kevin Trapp in a 1-0 upset of RB Leipzig. Harry Kane scored his 26th goal in all competitions, with Jamal Musiala and Leroy Sané doing Musiala-and-Sané things, as Bayern Munich thumped TSG Hoffenheim and maintained their best league pace since the Pep Guardiola days.

The most dramatics, however, came at FC Augsburg, where Bayer Leverkusen maintained their lead over Bayern with a beautiful Alejandro Grimaldo-to-Exequiel Palacios goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time. Xabi Alonso’s squad is the only unbeaten team remaining in Europe’s Big Five leagues. Their current 90-point pace is just one off of Bayern’s 91-point Bundesliga record.

All but two teams — Bayern and Union Berlin, who had their December match postponed due to mammoth snowfall — have reached the official halfway point of the season, so it’s a perfect time to take stock and preview the second half of the season.

Here’s how the table currently stands:

We have upstarts in the races for both the league title (Leverkusen) and Champions League places (VfB Stuttgart), and only four points separate the bottom four teams at the moment. The most consistently high-scoring major league in Europe should have plenty of stakes through the coming months. Let’s walk through the major questions at the midway point.

Who’s winning the title?

Title odds, per Opta Analyst: Bayern 67.4%, Bayer Leverkusen 32.2%, RB Leipzig 0.3%
Title odds, per ESPNBET: Bayern -350, Bayer Leverkusen +210

For all the magic Bayer Leverkusen have created thus far — 23 wins, three draws, zero losses and 82 goals scored in 26 matches — the challenges are only beginning in this race. After enjoying a relatively stable lineup over the first half of the season, they entered January missing defenders Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso) and Odilon Kossounou (Ivory Coast), plus substitute attacker Amine Adli (Morocco) for the extent of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Even worse, Victor Boniface, who was supposed to star for Nigeria at AFCON, instead suffered a groin injury that will likely keep him out until April. Boniface was a revelation in the fall, combining 16 goals with eight assists in 23 matches in all competitions. Missing the prolific 23-year-old for three to four weeks was already going to be a challenge; now they’ll miss him for two to three months.

The Augsburg result was fair — Leverkusen attempted 24 shots worth a total of 2.0 expected goals (xG), while Augsburg attempted three worth 0.4 — but it still rang some alarm bells. Their finishing certainly lacked, which was exactly what you didn’t want to see in the first match after Boniface’s injury; Patrik Schick, the star of their top-four finish in 2021-22 who has battled both injury and confidence issues since, attempted four shots on Saturday, but two were saved, one was blocked and a golden opportunity on a header was off-target. Schick recorded a hat trick in his last match in December, and he’s still scored in four of his past eight matches, so things are far from problematic just yet, but it was still disconcerting. Meanwhile, Augsburg put together some extremely threatening counterattacks against Leverkusen’s thinned-out back line, with two good scoring chances and a goal disallowed because of an offside call.

All the while, Bayern lurk. For as shaky as they looked at times during the first half of the season, most of their shakiest moments came outside of league play. They were drilled 3-0 at home by RB Leipzig in August, but it was in the DFL-Supercup. They suffered an embarrassing loss at third-division Saarbrucken in the DFB-Pokal. In the Champions League, they needed late goals to beat Galatasaray at home, then plodded through a scoreless draw with Copenhagen. Granted, their lone league loss was a dreadful one, too — 5-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt in early December — but it’s still their lone loss. They still have Kane up front, they’ve scored the most goals and allowed the fewest, they’ve generated the most xG and have allowed the least, and above all else, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has been tremendous since his return from injury. Even with depth issues in the back, they’re almost certainly the best team in the league in any category besides point totals (which, in fairness, is the most important one).

Leverkusen have still been brilliant, though. In the ratings at ClubElo.com, they have risen from 36th in Europe to 10th since Aug. 1, and they are approaching their all-time high rating, reached during their run to the Champions League final in 2002. That was the year they solidified their status as Neverkusen, a club with a high ceiling that never quite manages to reach the heights it had hoped. The odds above are a reminder that they probably aren’t going to shake that label this season, but if they can survive both a Saturday trip to RB Leipzig and a Feb. 10 visit from Bayern with their unbeaten record intact, those odds could shift considerably.

Who’s playing in the Champions League next year?

Current Champions League odds, per Opta Analyst*: Bayern Munich 100.0%, Bayer Leverkusen 99.9%, RB Leipzig 92.9%, Borussia Dortmund 75.1%, VfB Stuttgart 64.7%, Eintracht Frankfurt 7.8%, Hoffenheim 1.5%, VfL Wolfsburg 0.2%, Borussia Monchengladbach 0.1%
(* For this, I used a combination of The Analyst’s league projections and the current 48.3% chance the Bundesliga has of getting its fifth-place team into the Champions League in 2023-24.)

Safe to say, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern are safe in this race, and RB Leipzig are mostly safe as long as the finishing issues they suffered against Eintracht last weekend aren’t the start of a trend. RBL are particularly young and have particularly high upside (and an occasionally low floor) this season, but over the course of another 17 matches they should secure enough points to assure Champions League play.

That leaves either one or two more spots for basically two teams. It’s not too late for Eintracht to make a run — and their recent loan additions of both midfielder Donny van de Beek (Manchester United) and forward Sasa Kalajdzic (Wolverhampton Wanderers) suggest they haven’t given up on the idea — but for now it’s still probably a race between Borussia Dortmund and Stuttgart.

It’s no fluke that Stuttgart have risen this far this quickly. The Swabians barely survived last year’s relegation battle — they finished two points ahead of Schalke to avoid one of the automatic relegation spots, then beat Hamburg in the relegation playoff — and then lost stalwarts Wataru Endo and Konstantinos Mavropanos to relatively big-money transfers, but they spent that money almost perfectly. Newcomers Serhou Guirassy and Deniz Undav have combined for 26 goals and three assists, goalkeeper Alexander Nübel (on loan from Bayern) has been solid, and midfielder Angelo Stiller, acquired from Hoffenheim, has been an excellent Endo replacement.

Stuttgart have created the second-best xG differential in the league and have shown up big in big moments, drawing with Bayer Leverkusen in December and controlling Borussia Dortmund twice (once in league play and once in the DFB-Pokal) in a month’s span. There were occasional breakdowns in the fall — back-to-back losses to Hoffenheim and Heidenheim and a 3-0 blowout loss to Bayern — but they have earned their third-place spot in the table.

For as solid as Undav has been, however, Stuttgart have now played three league matches without Guirassy and have lost all three by a combined 8-3. Guirassy is also gone at AFCON for the coming weeks. In their first 2024 match without him, they fell 3-1 to Borussia Monchengladbach, taking 15 mostly low-quality shots and getting sliced up in counterattacks.

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After a visit to VfL Bochum on Saturday, Stuttgart’s next three matches are against RB Leipzig and SC Freiburg in league play and against Bayer Leverkusen in the cup. This feels like a moment of vulnerability, a moment that could be magnified if Borussia Dortmund actually get their act together.

BVB have been dramatically up and down in 2023-24, winning an almighty Champions League group consisting of Paris Saint-Germain, Newcastle United and AC Milan but winning just one of seven league matches during a rough November-December stretch. In five matches against the Bundesliga’s current top four (including the cup match against Stuttgart), they lost four and drew one, getting outscored by a combined 12-4.

To liven up a surprisingly sedate attack, BVB indeed brought back Sancho, who was transferred to Manchester United for €85 million in 2021, and despite having barely seen the pitch in the Northwest of England lately, he showed minimal rust in Saturday’s win. If his presence, plus that of another loanee (Chelsea left-back Ian Maatsen), can light a spark, BVB have a chance to make a move — four of their next five league opponents are ninth or worse in the table.

Who’s going down?

Current relegation odds, per Opta Analyst*: SV Darmstadt 87.0%, FC Cologne 55.3%, Mainz 42.9%, Union Berlin 19.2%, Bochum 14.2%, Werder Bremen 13.1%, Augsburg 11.8%, Heidenheim 4.4%, Gladbach 1.5%, Wolfsburg 0.9%
(* For these odds, I used a straight 50% likelihood that the 16th-place team will lose the relegation playoff and go down, although recent playoff results suggest the odds probably aren’t that high.)

Darmstadt’s first trip back to the Bundesliga since 2016-17 looks like it will be a short one. Since scoring back-to-back wins over Werder Bremen and Augsburg in October, they’ve taken just three points from their past 10 league matches to fall to last place. They have the league’s worst xG differential, and even in a prolific league they have allowed by far the most goals: 44, eight more than anyone else. They’ve been outscored by seven goals on set pieces, and they have yet to score on a counterattack. Nothing’s come easy, and that’s probably not going to change.

The other relegation spot is still up for grabs.

The season has been a disaster for Cologne; the Billy Goats were slapped with a significant transfer ban and parted ways with beloved manager Steffen Baumgart in December. They’ve scored easily the fewest goals in the league (11), and the guy responsible for five of them, Davie Selke, is out for a few weeks with a foot injury. Their only saving graces at the moment are that Darmstadt are bad and Mainz haven’t been much better. Mainz have been relatively unlucky in defense, where opponents have turned shots worth 20.8 xG into 29 goals, but their attack is paltry as well — they’ve scored just three goals in seven matches. They’re a little stronger than Cologne on paper, but their point totals are the same.

Union Berlin might be steering their way out of danger after a dismal winless run in the fall; the incredible club from Kopenick qualified for the Champions League for the first time ever last spring but went winless in the competition and fell apart in league play as well. Most of the hired guns they brought in for this run — veteran defender Leonardo Bonucci, veteran forward Kevin Volland, young loanees like Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United) and David Datro Fofana (Chelsea) — have struggled, and Bonucci (sent to Fenerbahce) and Fofana (loan cut short) are already gone. So is beloved manager Urs Fischer.

Between a 4-1 win over Darmstadt on Aug. 26 and a 3-1 win over Borussia Monchengladbach on Dec. 9, Union played 16 matches in all competitions and won exactly none of them. But with new manager Nenad Bjelica, they’ve pulled eight points from their past five matches; there’s time for everything to fall apart again, but for now they look like they’re trending in the right direction. Others, like Bochum, Werder Bremen and even mighty middleweight Heidenheim — one of the overachievers of the season thus far — still have time to play their way into this scrap. For now, though, it feels like Darmstadt and Cologne are the teams most likely to finish at the bottom.



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