BERLIN (Reuters) - The absence of Bayern Munich's top scorer Robert Lewandowski for Saturday's crunch Bundesliga fixture with second-placed RB Leipzig could prove crucial in the Bavarians' quest for a record-extending ninth successive league crown.
The 32-year-old, voted FIFA men's player of 2020, has been in sensational form this season, netting 35 league goals so far, but a knee ligament injury sustained last week on international duty has ruled him out for at least four weeks.
A win for the Bavarians in Saxony on Saturday would push them seven points clear and provide some much-needed breathing space going into the final seven matches of the season.
Defeat, however, would reduce their lead to a single point and throw the title race wide open.
The injury to Lewandowski could not have come at a worse time for Bayern, who have won their last four league games but have not shown the same dominance this year.
They have claimed six titles in the past 10 months but their hopes of a league and Champions League double have been kept alive by the Pole's goals.
Lewandowski, who will also miss their Champions League quarter-final clash with Paris St Germain, has scored just under half of Bayern's 78 league goals and was on track to break the 40-goal record of Gerd Mueller set back in 1971/72.
Now Bayern coach Hansi Flick must improvise.
"We live in the here and now. Our game will obviously change," Flick said. "Inside the box Robert is a different player, a special one. He creates goals out of nothing."
While forward Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting is the most obvious option to replace him, Flick could also opt to play in-form Thomas Mueller further up front.
The attacking midfielder has scored 10 times in the league and set up another 14 goals in a stellar season that is set to earn him a call-up for this summer's European Championship after more than two years out of the national side.
"Obviously his injury is very bitter for us and comes at a very inconvenient time," Mueller said of Lewandowski. "Now it is up to others to step up and fill the gap. This is not the first time that happens in football."
Bayern are on 61 points, with Leipzig, having won seven of their last eight league matches, on 57. VfL Wolfsburg are a further six points behind in third.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Peter Rutherford)