RB Leipzig kicked-off the new year with a highly anticipated fixture against Schalke 04 at the Red Bull Arena. With both sides looking to close down the 14 point gap that had been created by perennial champions Bayern Munich, whilst jostling for a seat in 2nd place, the first fixture for both sides in 2018 would turn out to be an entertaining one.
Much of the pre-match discussion was focused on the future of Naby Keïta, with speculation surrounding his future move to Liverpool and the possibility of it being move forward to this month. Despite the rumours, Keïta was deployed from the start. Laimer continued at right-back, whilst Bernardo and Bruma were brought in for the injured Halstenberg and Emil Forsberg.
The visitors had the first noteworthy opportunity of the game, coming in as early as the 2nd minute. After a corner came to nothing, a poor clearance from Sabitzer fell into the path of Amine Harit, but his attempted shot was comfortably claimed by Gulácsi in goal.
Leipzig, on the other hand, were forced to wait until the 15th minute to register a chance of any note. Giving away possession moments prior, Sabitzer regained the ball via Demme, having done well to prevent a counter-attack, and made strides inside to produce a shot with his left foot, but was promptly closed down by a man in blue and the opportunity was squandered.
It wasn’t until the 36th that the first major incident of the game occurred. Leipzig were awarded a penalty after Jean-Kévin Augustin’s left leg was swept out from beneath him by fellow Frenchman Benjamin Stambouli. In the absence of Timo Werner, who was watching from the bench, Augustin stepped to take the spot-kick, but his effort was tame, placing the ball too close Ralf Fährmann, allowing the German to palm the ball wide with ease.
Within five minutes of the penalty miss, Leipzig would find themselves in the lead, thanks to an audacious effort from Keïta. Receiving the ball in a large area of space within yards of the box, the 22-year-old took matters into his own hands, as he looked to attempt a shot from distance. The ball originally looked like it was going wide of the mark, but after a large deflection off Naldo’s head, the ball found its way into the back of the net, leaving the goalkeeper helpless and putting Leipzig ahead before half-time.
The second half started off with even more sparring between the two sides. Five minutes after the restart, the first opportunity came to fruition. Leipzig were handed a free-kick near the corner flag on the left flank after a foul on Sabitzer by Naldo. The former convinced Kampl to step away and took it himself, blasting the ball into the near post where it would be greeted with an awkwardly sliced clearance from Caliguiri, directing it onto the top of his own bar and out for a corner.
In the 55th minute, the visitors had equalised. For the sixth time in the game, Naby Keïta had committed a foul – a number visibly suggested by referee Deniz Aytekin – as the Guinean brought down Schöpf in a similar area as to where Leipzig’s free-kick was moments earlier. On this occasion, Schalke took full advantage of the opening. Caliguiri provided a well-hit cross into an area where he’d find an unmarked Naldo who, with a free header, levelled the game up for his side, rectifying for his role in the games opener.
Following Naldo’s goal, Leipzig continued to have the greater share of possession and opportunities, with Die Roten Bullen duo Sabitzer and Bruma both finding their routes to goal blocked, Guido Burgstaller also had an opportunity neutralised down the other end.
With a little over 20 minutes remaining on the clock, the host’s were back in front. Once again, Naldo was involved in the thick of things. After the Brazilian dispossessed Yussuf Poulson, an attempted pass to Meyer was cleverly nicked from behind by Konrad Laimer. After a one-two with Sabitzer, Laimer would breach into unfamiliar territory, as he entered the area. Remaining composed, the Austrian squared the ball past the oncoming Fährmann, granting Werner with an open goal to place the ball into.
Three minutes later, Werner turned from scorer to provider, doubling the home sides’ lead in the process. Amine Harit’s misplaced pass in the centre of the pitch rolled into the feet of Sabitzer, within two passes, Werner had retrieved the ball on the right wing. Spotting the run of Bruma in the centre, he elected to thread a pass into the Portuguese international, rather than driving at Harit who was looking to make amends for his error. With Bruma on the ball, the winger took one touch to open up his body and fired home a third at the near post.
Other than an optimistic effort from Bastian Oczipka in response to Leipzig’s quickfire double, Schalke were unable to restore their status within the game and would eventually lose for the first time since September, and watch their opponents leapfrog them in the table into 2nd place.