Champions League

FOX Soccer Exclusive

Rivals meet for final bragging rights

ONE FOR KICKS
Lewandowski and Schweinsteiger will battle in the Champions League final on Saturday.
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Jamie Trecker

Jamie Trecker is the Senior Editor for FOXSoccer.com. A working journalist for 25 years, he covers the Champions League, European soccer and the world game. Follow him on Twitter.

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LONDON, ENGLAND

Archrivals Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich clash at London’s iconic Wembley Stadium (live, FOX, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET) as the all-German final of the UEFA Champions League comes to the fore.

Dortmund and Bayern are poised to signal a changing of the European guard. Yet the storyline, somewhat counter-intuitively that these teams are giants, is of minnow versus shark.

Only in the Champions League could a team that is eleventh largest in the world be considered small. But that is Dortmund, a team that was once close to insolvency, once bailed out by the Bayern side they meet on Saturday. They are a team of young tyros coached by the magnetic, eccentric Jurgen Klopp. They have just offloaded their best midfielder Mario Gotze, to Bayern for an astonishing sum, and many of their top players are targets for the big-spenders of the Premier League. They enjoy an incredible support, with some 500,000 fans requesting tickets for this game. And yet, compared to “FC Hollywood,” they are smelt ready for the fryer.

This is as good an illustration of how out-of-whack the Champions League has become in comparison to league football around the continent. The leagues this year were, for the most part, a snooze. The Manchesters and Londoners dominated here once again; Juventus, like Barcelona and Real Madrid, made their competition look like cupcakes. France seemed like a season-long soap opera featuring David Beckham and Paris-Saint Germain. Let’s not even bring up this year’s Champions League feel-good story, Glasgow Celtic, a club that seems to be in search of actual competition in their league.

The Bundesliga, with its prescient focus on youth, its taut finances and marvelous fan-shares, is emerging as a model for other countries. In England, there’s been much hand-wringing in the press after a dismal Premier League season, and much anxiety over what, if anything the national team can to en route to Brazil's 2014 World Cup. A league with “common sense,” as Germany is supposed to possess, seems to be just the answer.

Yet a longer view shows that Bayern, combined with Dortmund, have effectively strangled the German top-flight over the past two decades. Top-to-bottom, the Bundesliga is probably a better, more entertaining league. But wide-open? Not really. In fact, Bayern rolled through the Bundesliga this season, smashing records along the way while Dortmund chose instead to focus on Europe. That was a tactical move that paid dividends, while opening the door for the Bavarian giants.

Bayern are the favorites coming into the match: they steamrolled through the Champions League this season, brushing aside Arsenal, Italian champs Juventus and Spanish champs and tournament favorites Barcelona. So complete and convincing was Bayern’s 7-0 aggregate demolition of Barcelona that many were prepared to hand them the trophy at the Camp Nou.

Bayern also gained a lift this week with the news that Gotze will miss the game due to a hamstring injury. A critical component of Dortmund’s attack, Gotze controversial transfer saga is also a major subplot here. The move itself is good business, but the Bavarian giants chose to break the news just before Dortmund were slated to play Real Madrid in a critical Champions League semifinal. That was seen by many as an attempt to unsettle Dortmund – and it backfired.

STAR POWER

From Schweinsteiger to Lewandowski, here are the players to watch during Saturday's Champions League final.

Relations between the two teams had once been cordial, but in the aftermath, the relationship has since soured. When met in a stormy league encounter, Klopp and Bayern’s sporting director, Mathias Sammer, were involved in a shouting match in the tunnel following an unusual competitive affair.

Bayern is known for such hijinks, but the root of their ploys is that they fold under heavy pressure. This is their third appearance in the Champions League finals in four years and have won zero in that span. Notably, they suffered a deep scar last season when Chelsea outmuscled them on their own soil to lift the jug in front of a stunned Allianz crowd.

Dortmund are sentimental favorites, with even their rivals, Schalke 04, quietly rooting them on. Bayern, the New York Yankees of Germany, are as loathed as much as they are loved. Dortmund, despite their wealth, are seen as the team of the working man, all things being relative.

But anyone who underestimates Dortmund does it at their own peril; Dortmund topped the “group of death,” recovered in heart-stopping fashion to escape Malaga and then ushered Real Madrid off the European stage. They have loads of talent, and an unanswered question is if the team is planning to cash in on that after this final – or make another run.

TIME CAPSULE

Revisit the heated rivalry between two of Germany's storied clubs.

Expect a tight tactical game with both sides playing defense first. Dortmund usually plays a high-pressing style of game that will look familiar to Americans raised on Rick Pitino’s brand of basketball, but have chosen to hang back and pounce in all their previous meetings with Bayern so far this season. Marco “Rolls” Reus will be critical here in Gotze’s absence, and his wing play to find Robert Lewandowski can shape this game.

Bayern are dangerous on both flanks, with Philipp Lahm and Arjen Robben tearing teams apart on the right while Franck Ribery dives down the left. Bastian Schweinsteiger is the metronome of the team, but keep an eye on Mario Mandzukic. The Croatian finisher acts as Bayern’s first line of defense, knocking down balls and disrupting the break. He’s a valuable weapon when he’s on key.

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