The Bundesliga is back, and so is Kevin Hatchard as he brings us his first selections of the year.
"Schalke are unbeaten in 13 games in all competitions, and Leipzig faded badly towards the end of 2017."
RB Leipzig v Schalke
Saturday January 13, 17:30
Schalke were not expected to finish 2017 in second spot, and it is to coach Domenico Tedesco's immense credit that they fully deserved to be in the position of "Bayern Hunters" at the turn of the year. The 32-year-old has won over his players with attention to detail, astute and sensitive man-management, and an iron-clad sense of self-belief.
Although the football Schalke play can be ultra-precise, to the point of being dull, you get the sense that Tedesco is loosening the shackles now the players understand what he wants from them. The most impressive thing about Schalke's revival has been the unwillingness to accept defeat, something a slew of Tedesco's predecessors failed to instil. 4-0 down at Borussia Dortmund, Schalke drew 4-4, and just before Christmas they recovered from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at Eintracht Frankfurt. The scorer of both late equalisers was Brazilian defender Naldo, who says he is playing the best football of his career, and most notably that Tedesco is the best coach he has ever worked with.
While Schalke have constructed a 13-match unbeaten run in all competitions, RB Leipzig are hoping to bounce back after a tepid end to the year. They took just two points from their last four Bundesliga games of 2017, as an injury to attacking midfielder Marcel Sabitzer and some bad defensive errors proved costly. The form of midfielder Naby Keita has declined, with his summer move to Anfield looming large on his personal horizon.
Sabitzer is back, but striker Timo Werner has only just returned after a nasty virus, and playmaker Emil Forsberg isn't fully fit. A leaky defence has conceded 12 goals in its last five matches, so I just can't see why RBL are only [2.08] to beat a Schalke side that beat them 2-0 at the start of the season. I'm backing the visitors to avoid defeat.
Lay RB Leipzig at [2.08]
Bayer Leverkusen v Bayern Munich
Friday January 12, 19:30
Another year, another spell of dominance for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. The Bavarian behemoth is closing in on an unprecedented sixth consecutive league title in Germany's top flight, with an 11-point lead carved out ahead of the winter break.
Bayern haven't always been at their best, but veteran coach Jupp Heynckes returned at the right time to stop FCB from slipping into irrevocably bad habits under Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian won the title by 15 points last term, but failed to push or improve his charges enough for the liking of Bayern's powerbrokers.
Bayer Leverkusen are nowhere near mounting a title challenge, but they are undergoing an impressive rebirth under Heiko Herrlich. A modest coaching record and the feeling that he was by no means Die Werkself's first choice meant that Herrlich's appointment inspired little enthusiasm, but he has managed to find consistency for a squad which has notoriously changeable performance levels.
Bayer have looked particularly impressive in attack. Kevin Volland has scored nine goals in his last 13 league games, while the fleet-footed Leon Bailey has exploded onto the Bundesliga scene with a series of superb displays. Julian Brandt has knuckled down after a poor spell last season, and teenager Kai Havertz continues to defy belief with the maturity of his displays.
Bayer finished 2017 with a run of 12 games unbeaten in the league, and they haven't yet lost a home match under Herrlich. They still have something of a soft centre defensively, but they believe they can outscore the opposition every time, especially at the BayArena.
Bayern are without star striker Robert Lewandowski and defender Mats Hummels, who I believe was the best centre-back in the league during the Hinrunde. Lewandowski will be replaced by Sandro Wagner, who arrived from Hoffenheim during the winter break, and has made the judgement that he can still win a World Cup place with Germany without being a regular starter.
You have to go back to March 2013 for the last time Bayern won at the BayArena in the Bundesliga, and with the hosts playing some fine football, I'm happy to lay the champions.
Lay Bayern Munich at [1.9]
Werder Bremen v Hoffenheim
Saturday January 13, 14:30
Werder Bremen begin 2018 in the relegation playoff spot, and frankly they are thankful to still be in touch with the teams above them. Under new coach Florian Kohfeldt, the northerners claimed ten points from their final six league matches of the Hinrunde, and there is a sense of renewed optimism at the Weserstadion.
Hoffenheim are only two points off the Champions League spots, but you wonder just how long coach Julian Nagelsmann's brilliance can keep them punching above their weight. Hoffe lost Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy to Bayern in the summer, and now chief goal-getter Sandro Wagner has made the same move. Mark Uth will leave for Schalke in the summer, and Serge Gnabry will return to Bayern when his loan expires at the end of the campaign. If Nagelsmann once again secures a top-four finish, it will be an astonishing act of coaching alchemy.
Hoffenheim have already lost at Werder in the DFB Cup, and in the league they have lost their last three away games. Werder have started playing really well at home, and I think they can start the year in style.
Back Werder Bremen Draw No Bet at [2.0]
Kevin will be commentating on RB Leipzig v Schalke and FC Koln v Borussia Monchengladbach for the Bundesliga's TV world feed - you can follow him on Twitter @kevinhatchard
Bundesliga 2017-18 P/L
Points Staked: 56
Points Returned: 57.24
P/L: +1.24 points