It is Germany’s ‘clasico’ but something has gone awry.
Borussia Dortmund. winless in its last six Bundesliga matches, heads to top-of-the-table Bayern Munich (live, Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET) trying to avoid a drop into the relegation zone.
How did this happen?
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Two of the best teams in Europe should be fighting for the title; instead Bayern will be looking to drive a stake into the heart of a team that has dared to challenge its national hegemony.
The Bundesliga table says this weekend’s clash matches No. 1 against No. 15. But, just maybe, that’s not quite correct.
There was just a hint Tuesday night that Jurgen Klopp and his Borussia Dortmund side may finally be able to shake off a monstrous start to the Bundesliga season. Sure, it was a DFB Cup game against second-from-bottom FC St. Pauli in Hamburg, but the way that the yellow-and-black moved the ball, the fact that Marco Reus finished a chance from just outside the box and the work rate shown by Shinji Kagawa to grab an 86th-minute goal in a match already won, may indicate that the worst is in the past.
Klopp wasn’t entirely satisfied, telling the media that he liked the first half in Hamburg but wasn’t as happy with the second.
Still, it was a needed boost for a team admittedly facing a crisis. BvB had never lost six matches in the first half of a season under Klopp and the latest defeat last weekend against an average Hannover 96 side will have had the faithful wondering just what has gone wrong.
The Dortmund team which won back-to-back titles and reached a Champions League final only to lose to Bayern has been torn apart by injuries and defections. Just think back to 2012 when Dortmund shredded Bayern 5-2 in the DFB Cup final: Mario Gotze and Sven Bender were on the bench, Robert Lewandowki scored a hat trick and Kuba Blaszczykowski helped rule midfield.
Since then Blaszczykowski has been lost to an ACL injury, Lewandowski and Gotze have moved to Bayern Munich, and Bender has battled injuries along with 2012 fixtures Ilkay Gundogan, Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer and Mats Hummels. And Kagawa left for two lost seasons at Manchester United while midfield talisman Marco Reus missed the World Cup, then got hurt again on his return to full-time Dortmund duty.
While Klopp will certainly know it, Dortmund fans are having to deal with one of football’s harsher lessons. When truly great players are gone you cannot replace them with depth. Try as they might, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ciro Immobile have not stepped into the shoes they must replace up front and the midfield is nowhere near as dominant as it had been. Even the usually-reliable Roman Weidenfeller has produced some erratic goalkeeping displays; his back-up, Mitchell Langerak, started the Cup match Tuesday night.
Not that Bayern has been without its own issues, but the obvious fact is that squad depth in Bavaria has made Pep Guardiola’s job simpler than Klopp’s. Not only did he pick up Gotze and Lewandowski, even if the latter has yet to turn into a Bayern goal-scoring machine, he has been able to survive the loss of Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger without paying full price.
Guardiola told anyone who would listen that this Bayern team needed time to grow together. He understands that a World Cup campaign makes extraordinary demands on players and that winning it adds to the fatigue that key players will have to deal with. He has managed the minutes for his players who led Germany to success in Brazil while simultaneously maintaining an unbeaten Bundesliga start. That’s not easy.
While Bayern looked absolutely transcendent at AS Roma in the Champions League and has thrashed the minnows of the Bundesliga, there is no doubt that is has become increasingly dependent on Arjen Robben’s individualist runs to open league defenses. With Robben sidelined because of a thigh injury at Borussia Monchengladbach last week, the Bayern attack looked rather ordinary in a 0-0 draw. Even the late introduction of too-often-injured Franck Ribery did not change that equation.
There’s little doubt that this weekend’s showdown is more important to Dortmund than it is to Bayern. In fact, a win for Klopp’s side could well put them back on a path to success that is far more likely in Europe than in the Bundesliga. It will take a miracle for BvB to make a run at the home title, but a rebirth of confidence could mean a solid spell in Europe where the German clubs and their Spanish counterparts again appear the pick of the litter.
Similarly, Bayern needs a result Saturday simply to maintain its peerage at the top of a league they expect to dominate. Last year, it took them 28 games before they dropped points for a third time, but Guardiola does not care about the statistics or league positions, saying that his side still have a tough 90 minutes ahead this weekend.
"It’s only October," Guardiola told reporters during Friday’s press conference. "You can’t always win and you can’t always lose. Football is a process. We are up against the best Dortmund side tomorrow. They have great players with great experience. In this situation, Dortmund are going to be even harder to play against."
Information from FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.