Champions League final features best clubs from Germany, Europe
The first all-German Champions League final takes place Saturday when Bayern Munich meets Borussia Dortmund here at Wembley Stadium (2:45 p.m. ET, FOX), but for me and other neutrals, the most alluring aspect of the world's marquee annual soccer match is this: The two best teams made the final.
How often does that happen in any sport? It certainly wasn't the case last year when Chelsea (sixth place in the Premier League) won the Champions League title. But Bayern and Dortmund removed any doubts over their season-long success when they surprised the two titans of Spanish soccer in different ways in the semifinals to reach this game.
For Bayern, the magnitude of its victory against Barcelona was the shock -- 7-0 over two games! -- while for Dortmund the 4-1 opening-leg win against Real Madrid provided big-game confirmation of the superiority that Dortmund had enjoyed over Madrid (and Manchester City) in the group stage. We talk more in soccer than in other sports about whether teams "deserved" a result, and we can safely say in this case that the two clubs deserve to be here.
Bayern will be the favorite Saturday, not least because of the dominance shown by the Bavarians all season, which included winning the German Bundesliga by an astonishing 25 points over second-place Dortmund. The injury-related absence of Dortmund star Mario Götze should help Bayern, too, but don't rule out a Dortmund team that's led by tactical whiz Jürgen Klopp, who has lost just twice against Bayern in their last nine games against each other.
What's at stake for these clubs? A win by Bayern would mean instant entry into the pantheon of truly great seasons by a European club. Jupp Heynckes' team has put up video-game numbers, outscoring German league foes by a 98-18 margin and rampaging through the Champions League, capped by the touchdown-sized destruction of venerated Barça. But this is Bayern's third Champions League final in four years, and after the two previous defeats (including at home last year) a third loss would be crushing to the psyche of Germany's premier club.
If Dortmund were to win, by contrast, it would be validation that it's still possible to raise club soccer's most important trophy without being one of the sport's biggest spenders. Dortmund has risen from Bundesliga mediocrity to the top of Europe thanks to brilliant transfer-market buys, trust in youth and Klopp's surpassing skills as a motivator and tactician. That Dortmund has done so by playing wildly entertaining soccer only adds to the mystique -- and explains why so many fans around the world have adopted this team as one of their own.
Götze's absence, however, will make things difficult for Dortmund. The 20-year-old attacking central midfielder pulled a hamstring in the second leg against Real Madrid and hasn't played since, with the announcement coming Wednesday that Götze would miss the final. That set off all sorts of conspiracy theories that Götze, who's joining Bayern next season, either didn't want to play in the final or that Bayern was pressuring him not to play.
Call me naïve, but I don't buy it. Athletes are all about playing in the moment, and you never know how many times in your career that you'll reach the Champions League final. Suggesting Götze would fake it or refuse to play in the most important game of his career is among the most serious charges you could level at a professional, and I'm not going to do it here.
How will Dortmund deal with a Götze-sized hole in the lineup? Most likely we'll see the talented Marco Reus move from the left flank into Götze's central position, with Kevin Grosskreutz taking Reus' previous spot on the left. Grosskreutz is a bit more defensive-minded, but that may not be a bad thing considering Bayern generates so many of its attacks from the wings through Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben. In previous games Dortmund has doubled up on Bayern's wings, but that leaves space in the middle, which Bayern's in-form Thomas Müller could use to great advantage.
The central midfield battle to watch will be between Bayern's Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dortmund's Ilkay Gündogan. No German player's stock has risen more in the past year than that of Gündogan, who may well usurp Sami Khedira's national-team role and play next to Schweinsteiger at next year's World Cup. There has even been talk that Gündogan has surpassed Schweinsteiger, which gives their mano-a-mano matchup on Saturday even more intrigue. Look for Götze's absence to cause Gündogan to move up into a bit more of an attacking role than usual.
Plenty other questions remain: Can Robben continue his run of good performances and erase his rep as a big-game choker? Can Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski, perhaps playing his last game in black and yellow, summon another multi-goal stunner like he did with his four goals in the opening leg versus Madrid? Can Dortmund get its transition game into full gear without Götze and challenge Bayern's center backs, perhaps the one area that might be considered something of a weakness? And can Klopp, who outcoached José Mourinho in the semis, pull another rabbit out of his hat against Heynckes?
I just don't see it happening for Dortmund. Look for Bayern to attack successfully from the wings with Ribéry and Robben, with Müller impacting the game from different spots centrally and Mandzukic laying off balls from useful spots up top. If Bayern can build an advantage, Dortmund will push forward and open up space that can be exploited. These two teams do not like each other, and I feel confident saying we won't be exposed to a dour, defensive-minded final.
Nor do I think there will be any doubt in the end over who deserves the title. My prediction: Bayern 3, Dortmund 1.