Champions League

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Dortmund, Bayern deserving of final

FOX Soccer Match Day: Bayern Munich dominates Messi-less Barcelona.
FOX Soccer Match Day: Bayern Munich dominates Messi-less Barcelona.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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ROAD TO WEMBLEY

Watch the best shots from this week's UEFA Champions League semifinal round.

An era has ended. Another has just begun.

Predictably, both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich (live, FOX, May 25, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET) held onto their regal UEFA Champions League semifinals 4-1 and 4-0 first leg leads in Tuesday and Wednesday’s second legs. Dortmund made it somewhat hard on themselves, letting Real Madrid score two late goals to bring the aggregate score to 4-3 and put them within one of advancing. Bayern didn’t, hammering Barcelona 3-0 away just as easily as they had at home.

The Spanish duopoly as Europe’s best sides was washed away by a wave of budding dynasties from Germany. Indeed, Bayern will play in their third Champions League final in four years, having previously lost in 2010 and 2012. Dortmund won the tournament in 1997 but had been absent from the continent’s top ever since, as they concerned themselves more with staving off bankruptcy.

Barcelona and Real Madrid delivered tantalizing soccer and intense face-offs in recent years, but this column is no missive to their fading greatness, nor is it a post-mortem of Spain’s turn at the top. Bayern and Dortmund are far too deserving of all the credit and limelight to be overshadowed by the clubs they vanquished.

For only the fourth time in the tournament’s 57-year history will two teams from the same country dispute the final; Real Madrid beat Valencia in 2000; AC Milan beat Juventus in 2003; Manchester United beat Chelsea in 2008. Each time, the matchup in the final reflected the continental dominance of a single nation. And this time around, the card is no less apt. Both clubs have dazzled with their defensive organization and attacking machinery this year, with their physicality and their energy, their spirit and their moxie. They are shrewd and sharp sides, and have left little doubt that they are the deserving finalists.

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When they face off at Wembley Stadium in London on May 25, it will be just the first time that an American, of sorts, appears in the Champions League final. Dortmund’s Neven Subotic and his family moved to the United States in the late 1990s after their refugee visas expired in Germany. Rather than return to Bosnia, they moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. The Subotic family eventually made its way to Bradenton in Florida so that his sister Natalija could join the famed Nick Bolettieri Tennis Academy. While there, Neven was spotted playing by himself and asked to join the IMG Soccer Academy, which doubles as the residency program for the United States under-17 national team. He made several appearances at the 2005 Under-17 World Cup and graduated to the under-20 national team. But then-coach Thomas Rongen preferred others and left Subotic, who had since joined Mainz in Germany, off the 2007 U-20 World Cup roster. Seizing on the opportunity, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, for which he was also eligible, offered him spots in their program. And by 2009, Subotic had made his debut for Serbia, not to mention developed into one of the Bundesliga’s best defenders for Dortmund.

On Sunday May 5, Germany’s powerhouses face each other in the Bundesliga. Bayern has long since wrapped up the title – wresting it from two-time champions Dortmund. But as an appetizer to the Champions League final, the game is nonetheless intriguing. A win on Sunday could offer a big psychological advantage. The sides know each other well enough that there’s little advantage to be gained by attempting any tactical skullduggery. But they could just as well spare their key players for the big game.

Their Champions League fixture will be their fifth meeting of the year; Bayern won 2-1 in the German Supercup on Aug. 12; they drew 1-1 in the league on December 1; Bayern knocked Dortmund out of the DFB Pokal by winning 1-0 in the quarterfinals on Feb. 27. Their league fixture on Sunday is their fourth meeting.

Bayern will come armed with immutable wingers Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, with its midfield block of Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger and its unbreakable pressing game, with the knowledge that they’ve got the league title in the bag and hold a 2-0-1 season lead over Dortmund which they could improve on come Sunday. But Bayern understands that Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan are world class playmakers, and that Robert Lewandowski is an unsurpassed finisher right now.

This could be the first battle in a long war. Both teams are young, deep and talented enough to sustain a long run. Bayern has the deeper pockets, and has already poached Dortmund’s midfielder Gotze for next season for a dizzying sum of money. But Dortmund nevertheless has the clout to keep much of this team together and replenish when it does suffer losses.

Yes, a new era has begun. But who will rule it is yet to be decided.

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