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Two rising stars of the Bundesliga meet as leader Leverkusen takes on Stuttgart

Munich's Harry Kane reacts after the Champions League Group A soccer match between Bayern Munich and FC Copenhagen at Allianz Arena, in Munich, Germany, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. (Sven Hoppe/dpa via AP)

DUESSELDORF, Germany (AP) — Is Bayer Leverkusen's German title challenge for real? How about Stuttgart's chances?

The Bundesliga's two teams on the rise meet on Sunday when league-leading Leverkusen travels to third-placed Stuttgart.

Leverkusen's 21-game unbeaten start to the season is on the line again after a rare moment of vulnerability in a 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund on Sunday.

Stuttgart knocked Dortmund out of the German Cup on Wednesday and is aiming for another upset win in a season already packed with eye-catching performances.

The simple fact that Stuttgart vs. Leverkusen has become a must-watch game in Germany is tribute to Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso and his Stuttgart counterpart Sebastian Hoeness, who both took over relegation-threatened teams partway through last season and turned them around.

Leverkusen may have to do without Florian Wirtz after the 20-year-old attacking midfielder limped off after a hard tackle to the ankle in Wednesday's 3-1 cup win over second-division Paderborn.

Leverkusen's and Stuttgart's rise has displaced two of Bayern's usual challengers. Dortmund hosts Leipzig on Saturday with both teams having something to prove.

The top task for Dortmund and coach Edin Terzic is to bridge the gulf between its European successes and its domestic failures.

Dortmund qualified for the Champions League knockout stages with a game to spare — and from arguably the most difficult group too — but its recent form in Germany is dismal.

A lopsided 4-0 loss to Bayern last month was the obvious low point, but Terzic's team has just five points from its last five league games and its defense struggled to track Stuttgart players' runs in the cup loss on Wednesday.

Leipzig is fourth, a place above Dortmund, but consistency is the main problem for a young team which has had some statement games this season — including a win and a draw with Bayern — but plenty of underwhelming moments, too, namely recent losses to Wolfsburg and relegation-threatened Mainz. It hasn't helped that midfielder Dani Olmo hasn't started a game since September and is out with a shoulder injury until the new year.

December is usually the most hectic month in Germany as teams frequently play twice a week before the winter break. Not so at Bayern.

The German champion goes into its game on Saturday at Eintracht Frankfurt with nine days' rest after its league game at home to Union Berlin last week was called off because of heavy snow. It won't be played until Jan. 24.

Bayern and Frankfurt have plenty in common at the moment, not least that they both got knocked out of the German Cup by the same third-division team, Saarbruecken. Bayern's loss was last month, meaning it didn't play in midweek, while Frankfurt's marking was a major issue in its own 2-0 loss to Saarbruecken on Wednesday.

It may be just the right time for a refreshed Bayern to play Frankfurt, which is on a four-game losing run in all competitions in its first real slump under new coach Dino Toppmöller, who was himself a Bayern assistant coach last season.


AP soccer:

James Ellingworth, The Associated Press

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