The Bundesliga has been crying out for a genuine second superpower since Borussia Dortmund nearly went bust chasing the dream a little less than a decade ago. But signs are that Jürgen Klopp's league leaders are about to create another duopoly: a win against second-placed FC Bayern (three points adrift) in what has been dubbed "the German Clasico" on Wednesday night would all but secure a second consecutive championship and make the Black and Yellows the first club -- other than Bayern -- to retain the title in 16 years. The two clubs will also face each other in the German Cup final on May 12.
Over 450,000 people applied for tickets for the Signal Iduna Park, and the whole of Germany is excited by the "pre-final" for the title (Dortmund president Reinhard Rauball). Here's the complete lowdown on both sides' objectives, strategies and prospects.
Dortmund can land a fatal blow if it manages to defeat the visitors. A six-point gap would surely be too much to make up for the Bavarians over the course of the following four games. "We're champions, if we win," predicted Borussia CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. The situation is a little akin to one player having a match point in tennis: he can kill off the match but the opponent will still be very much in it if he doesn't.
There's no doubt that the psychology would change if Bayern deposed Dortmund at the top of the table with an away win, however, so the host can't quite afford to lose this game, either. Klopp thus hinted at a draw being sufficient, too, saying that he didn't think the title race would be determined on Wednesday night. The Borussia manager is aware that Dortmund has two tough matches, away to local rivals Schalke and at home to highflying Borussia Mönchengladbach, to negotiate next; games that give Bayern hope that not all is lost if it only draws. As a consequence, it wouldn't be all that surprising if both teams were to settle for a draw if the match is tied late on. A similar dynamic was at play in the first match in Munich (1-0 to Dortmund). Everyone seemed happy with a 0-0 before Mario Götze took advantage of a Jérôme Boateng slip-up to decide the game.
Bayern's so-called "attack department," routinely led by Bayern president Uli Hoeness, has been eerily quiet this week. There have been no grandiose statements and almost no snide remarks emanating from Munich. Instead, CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge stressed that both sides were "at the same level" in this "meeting of giants" and midfielder Toni Kroos recalled that the defending champions have only dropped four points since the winter break. "We have respect," said Rummenigge, in acknowledgment of three defeats in the last three league games against Dortmund. To be sure, the Bavarians emphasized their own confidence, too ("A win is possible. I don't know how, but we'll win. I think we're perhaps still a little better, football-wise", Kroos) but it's all been very tame in comparison to the "verbals" employed against Schalke, Leverkusen or even Hoffenheim in the past.
The notable change of tack has three reasons. Firstly, it's a reflection of genuine respect toward the opponents' recent performances. Secondly, many players privately concur with the assessment of Watzke, who feels the sort of "mind games" employed by Hoeness and Co. were "kindergarten stuff" and "rituals from the 80s and 90s." Thirdly, Bayern is wary to give the master motivator Klopp extra ammunition for his team-talk. Schweinsteiger and his men understand from previous defeats that adding extra layers of emotion and passion to this occasion will not be beneficial to their game. Their aim is to subdue the opposition, not to provoke them into another devastating show of attacking soccer.
Dortmund, too, have been careful not to sound arrogant. "After winning the last three games against them, we know how a win feels and what we must do to achieve it," said Mario Götze, who won't quite make the bench after a lengthy injury layoff. Klopp went slightly further, insisting that Dortmund's motto was "we are football" -- Bayern's is "we are who we are." But even the 44-year-old Klopp did little more than to remind the visitors that they would have to adapt their game ("we've reached a level where they have to think about how to play us"), with his counterpart replying in kind. "Of course they need to think about us as well," said Heynckes. "I'd have a few headaches looking at all these great [Bayern] players in midfield and up front."
Dortmund is best when it can press the ball with high intensity and then break forward with four to six men. It's a good fit: Bayern is vulnerable to exactly that kind of pressing game. The main question for Klopp's team is one of numbers. In Munich, Borussia didn't commit that many men forward, being wary of counter-attacks. In front of 80,000 fanatical supporters, the home side will be a little less cautious but also eager to get the balance right. The formation will be a 4-4-1-1 with Robert Lewandowski as a "playing" center forward and Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa just behind. Both like to drop deep, so as to create numerical supremacy in the center of the pitch.
Bayern, conversely, needs to go wide and try to isolate the fullbacks. Its 4-2-3-1 is easy to defend against when all players hold their positions but has worked much better in recent weeks, when Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller and Franck Ribéry have been interchanging and overloading. Bastian Schweinsteiger will have a tough time trying to build play from the back, so we can expect a smattering of long, diagonal balls from Holger Badstuber toward Robben to escape Dortmund's pressing.
Key Men, Key Battles
Despite the wealth of attacking potential on show, chances might well be at a premium, so the two main strikers, Lewandowski (19 goals in 29 games) and Bayern's Mario Gomez (25 goals in 28 games) need to be at the top of their game. Ironically, both had a reputation for missing too many opportunities in the past. The in-form Kagawa (8 goals in his last 10 games) will look for space between the lines and try to drag out Boateng, but Bayern has a bit more firepower on the whole -- Robben and Ribéry have netted 11 times each, while Kroos and Müller have added another eight league goals between them. Dortmund's wide players, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kevin Großkreutz have less guile but work harder to support the team in both directions. Their constant running will put pressure on Bayern's Luiz Gustavo to help out his fullbacks. David Alaba, a midfielder by trade, looks especially vulnerable but Marcel Schmelzer, on the left side of Dortmund's defense, is also suspect when one-on-one. Finally, it should make for an "interesting" evening for Manuel Neuer, a former Schalke 04 player and supporter who can expect an extra-hostile welcome in the stadiums. He will see a lot of the ball, with Bayern passing back to break the press, and needs to withstand the temptation to show of his fancy foot skills.
In the absence of an early goal, both teams will be reluctant to open up too early, but more space will become available as the game progresses. Gomez and Kagawa will score after the break in a 1-1 draw that keeps Dortmund in the driving seat.