As far as the Bundesliga is concerned, you shouldn’t take notice of the league standings until after the Hinrunde. Tonight’s Der Klassiker and what’s at stake – especially for second-placed Borussia Dortmund – is a perfect example of why.
Teams are still finding their feet, summer signings settling into new surroundings and consistency can be hard to achieve – especially for the Champions League-chasing teams.
Defending champions Bayern are no exception, either. Over the past three seasons, they’ve stumbled around October or November time, allowing the chasing pack an opportunity to gain a promising lead in a far-too-early title race.
One thing that has remained constant though, is their ability to turn up the heat and deliver when it matters most during the season’s business months.
Bayern’s stumble started early this term
Their drop-off period of inconsistent results followed the trend again this term, while also going on for too long. After two draws in their first five league matches, Bayern lost at home to Hoffenheim and conceded a late equaliser against Augsburg in October.
Then, they were embarrassed 5-1 – albeit with ten men – against an ruthless Eintracht Frankfurt side on November 2. The result was their heaviest loss since April 2009 and unsurprisingly signalled the end of Niko Kovac’s tenure in charge.
The last time they lost so convincingly, was to eventual league winners Wolfsburg in the 08-09 season. So you could understand the collective optimism from neutrals when their dwindling form persisted after Kovac’s dismissal: 2-1 defeats to Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach.
It’s why Hansi Flick was frustrated to see his players concede two soft goals on Saturday, enroute to a 5-2 victory over Eintracht as they avenged their defeat this past weekend.
They were fluid, fast-paced and unforgiving at times against a Frankfurt team wilting under the pressure. Then, the visitors were suddenly given a way back into proceedings.
A quick-fire second-half double via defender Martin Hinteregger prompted warning signs that were swiftly rectified, through Alphonso Davies and substitute Serge Gnabry.
This was far from a faultless collective display, but the type which showed why they are able to win in crunch time: their players embrace pressure and feed off it by delivering purposeful performances, rather than letting it consume them.
This has been Dortmund’s Achilles heel in recent seasons. Last year was perhaps as close as it gets, battling down to the final day of the campaign.
Considering their rivals are all strong in their own separate ways, critics and neutrals alike have longed for a more competitive title race – not just BVB every year.
Leipzig are better than teams give them credit for, as Tottenham found out first-hand in their UCL last-16 ties. Leverkusen are an impressive side even with Kai Havertz starring the show, while Gladbach have already exceeded expectations under Marco Rose.
A perfect Champions League record
Given their domestic inconsistencies, it’s easy to forget that Bayern are Europe’s only perfect Champions League team this season. They won all six Group B fixtures, in a draw that paired them against last year’s runners-up Tottenham and Olympiacos – Greek giants that have historically proven their mettle in Europe. Arsenal can attest to that.
They simply blew Chelsea away at Stamford Bridge in the last-16 first leg on February 25 and were 90 minutes away from another quarter-final berth. It’s no wonder they’ve been regularly frustrated by underachieving in Europe over recent seasons.
Plenty on the line in today’s Der Klassiker
Bayern will extend their lead atop the Bundesliga to seven points, should they complete the domestic double over Dortmund this evening.
Considering the circumstances, this match will be watched by an even bigger audience than usual and there’s plenty at stake for both sides.
Dortmund cannot afford to lose. They would relinquish further ground on their arch-rivals and still face games against a resurgent Hertha Berlin and fellow title-chasers RB Leipzig next month, with Julian Nagelsmann’s side just three points behind them.
Bayern are unbeaten since the aforementioned two league defeats and although genuine questions remain of their defensive abilities, they certainly possess more than enough going forward to cause Dortmund a multitude of problems.
Robert Lewandowski leads the scoring charts with 27 top-flight goals and March’s enforced break allowed him to fully recover from a knee injury sustained at Chelsea.
While midfield duo Thiago Alcantara (muscle) and Philippe Coutinho (ankle) are among the key players sidelined, their strength in depth and versatility cannot be understated.
It’s why rising star Davies and Germany international Joshua Kimmich have asserted their value – seamlessly slotting into various positions to help contribute.
Dortmund are no pushovers. Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain overturned a 2-0 deficit, humbling them in a forgettable UCL last-16 second leg clash on March 11 – their last match before the coronavirus pandemic halted play indefinitely.
They were knocked out of the DFB-Pokal in February and manager Lucien Favre is under no illusions about the task at hand to save a promising season from ending trophyless.
Every year, it seems their most influential players are subject to big bids from Europe’s other elite clubs – Bayern included – as the path to silverware is easier elsewhere.
Jadon Sancho broke more records on Saturday during his memorable cameo against Wolfsburg, while it’ll be interesting to see how he and teenage sensation Erling Braut Haaland fare in what has transformed into their most important game of the campaign.
A lot has been said about BVB’s strengths from wide areas. Achraf Hakimi has flourished both off-the-ball and in attack during his two-year loan spell from Real Madrid.
Meanwhile, Raphael Guerreiro is earning more respect for his dilligent displays on the opposite flank. In the final third, they’re spoilt for choice with multiple options – evidenced by both fullbacks getting on the scoresheet vs. Wolfsburg this past weekend.
After Gladbach-Leverkusen on Saturday and Der Klassiker today, these are precisely the type of compelling matches which get neutrals excited about the Bundesliga.
The circumstances are far from ideal: a big game behind closed doors during the middle of a global pandemic, but once the first whistle blows at the Signal Iduna Park, all eyes will be focused on the players in a potentially season-defining encounter.
It’s all set up perfectly then, for a goalless draw.