Dortmund in good position to get one over under-pressure Bayern
MAY 16, 2014 12:41p ET
“Supremacy in Germany is at stake, it’s about sending a message to the rival,” Muller recently told the media before heading off to Berlin.
He couldn’t be more right, especially when you consider what’s happened over the past two months. Whereas Bayern have undergone a head-scratching, late-season swoon after winning the Bundesliga title in record fashion back in March, Dortmund have found their second wind, firing on all cylinders since a 2-0 win over Real Madrid in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League quarterfinals tie.
Four days later, Dortmund won 3-0 in Munich, a match that began to gnaw away at Bayern’s aura of invincibility and shifted the head-to-head psychological edge back in Borussia’s favor. Lest we forget, despite last season’s Champions League final, Dortmund have been the Bavarians' bogey team. Since the 2010-11 season, Bayern have won just four of thirteen meetings.
It’s difficult, of course, to imagine that Bayern’s status as Germany’s elite team is in question. It’s even stranger to think of Saturday’s final as a must-win for a coach whose team broke most of the records that were set just a season ago under treble-winning coach Jupp Heynckes. Yet somehow, that’s exactly the paradox Josep Guardiola finds himself in.
The Bundesliga title is nothing more than a Bayern supporter’s assumed birthright every year. Fair or not, Guardiola’s first season in charge was always going to be judged on what he did with his team in May, how close he could come to Heynckes’ unsurpassable watermark. And after the giant heaping of humble pie Bayern were served by Real Madrid in the Champions League, the German Cup final could suddenly prove to make or break Guardiola’s rookie year report card.
Beat Dortmund, and the Real humiliation will be forgiven (if not forgotten). Lose, and, well, Guardiola already knows what. “If we win, it’s a good year,” Guardiola told reporters this week, “If we don’t, then this summer will be more difficult.”
Quite. Guardiola has come under fire since the heavy 4-0 defeat to Madrid at the Allianz Arena, the club’s biggest home loss in a European cup contest ever. Though his trademark possession football bore fruit for most of the season, it failed miserably in both semifinal legs and against Dortmund a few weeks earlier. Should it bomb again, Guardiola will have to bear the brunt of criticism.
“Difficult” also perfectly describes Franck Ribery’s situation the past few months. Since finishing a disappointing third in the FIFA Ballon d’Or voting in January, the Frenchman has been a shell of himself. Whether it was those results that prompted his dip in confidence, energy and attitude, Guardiola’s heavy rotation over the second half of the season, or the bizarre butt injury that sidelined him in February, there was no evidence of the player that was named UEFA’s best in the most critical part of Bayern’s season. Ribery can win some of his swagger back with a good showing Saturday, though a nagging back injury may keep him out of the starting XI.
Threatening to steal the spotlight, meanwhile, is Ribery’s opposite: Dortmund winger Marco Reus. No player has personified Borussia’s late-season hot streak more than the Rolls Reus. Since being reprimanded by Germany manager Joachim Low in February over a lack of form, Reus has been absolutely electric, notching 11 goals and eight assists in his final 13 games of the season.
There are many more storylines to consider. Bayern will miss both Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thiago Alcantara to knee injuries. Javi Martinez -- who started most key games this season from the bench -- will thus likely slide in next to Philipp Lahm in central midfield. Mario Mandzukic didn’t even make the trip to Berlin. Guardiola threw the Croatian striker off the roster on Thursday, practically marking an abrupt end to his Bayern career. Mandzukic reportedly already said his good-byes before flying to his home country for World Cup preparation with Croatia.
The man who will replace him next season, Robert Lewandowski, is looking for a much better conclusion to his Dortmund tenure. After winning the Bundesliga’s golden boot, the Polish No. 9 is looking to add a fourth major trophy to his resume. And though Lewandowski is nursing a thigh injury picked up in training this week, he is expected to play.
Then there is the case of Mario Goetze. The former Dortmund fan favorite will have to labor through another emotional night, but he could also be the difference. In November, Goetze scored the opening goal in Dortmund just ten minutes after coming off the bench, not exactly assuaging his status amongst Dortmund fans as the reincarnation of Judas. Goetze missed last year’s Champions League final before defecting to Bayern. This time around, he is looking for a happy end.
All these narratives have a similar theme: It’s not how you start that counts, it’s how you finish. Dortmund have a chance to finish the season with the clear upper hand on the rivalry, while Bayern’s entire season depends on this one result.
“The last impression is the one that counts,” says Muller, “It’s this one match that will tip the scales.”