While FC Bayern Munich are familiar to many, Dortmund is far less familiar and to a certain extent a surprise finalist especially if you think back to the Group of Death that they began in and their fairly putrid performance in the Champions League last year (finished 4th in the Group Stage). Meanwhile, Bayern has been smarting for the last year from its epic and demoralizing loss in its own backyard to Chelsea in the last Champions League Final. So the fact that the final is being played in London this time around seems like poetic justice in an effort to exercise the demons if you will.
A lack of familiarity doesn’t apply to the combatants themselves as they are all too familiar with each other. This will be their sixth meeting of note in a little over a year’s time with Dortmund winning twice, drawn twice and Bayern winning in the DFB Pokal Quarterfinals (German FA Cup). So lest anyone think that Bayern are runaway favorites, Dortmund comes into this game with the knowledge that they have and can beat Bayern. The Bayern win in the DFB Pokal in late February snapped a streak of 6 consecutive matches without a win for Bayern (including a thorough 5-2 thrashing in the DFB Pokal a week before last year’s CL Final).
Both have been critical to the successes of their clubs but for different reasons. Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp came from a smaller club at Mainz five years ago and slowly built Dortmund from within. He had the luxury of time and patience as the troubled club slowly rebounded from its financial disaster in the early to mid-2000s. Klopp instituted a pressure defense style with quick passes countering for breaks going the other way. The fact that Bayern plays a similar defensive pressing game has not gone unnoticed by Klopp even comparing Bayern to China in terms of stealing ideas. Klopp is a high energy guy, bouncing around on the sidelines, fists pumping all the while wearing his trademark baseball cap. Some might call him a poor man’s Jose Mourinho since he is not wearing high fashion out there. But the team clearly responds to his tinkering and energy and of the two managers Klopp is far more dynamic.
Bayern’s Jupp Heynckes is older and more even keeled. He is also a players’ manager as he has clearly managed the locker room this season minimizing the distractions of star players sitting on the bench and not getting playing time no matter how unhappy they act (looking at you Arjen Robben). So to maintain order he certainly commands a fair amount of respect within the locker room and is the front man for the team to deflect the pressure from the players. However, it must be noted that Bayern’s sudden defensive supremacy this season could be directly linked to the hiring of Matthias Sammer as the new sporting director following the debacle with Chelsea. Sammer captained and managed Dortmund to Bundesliga titles in his career adding further intrigue to this clash. But it is difficult to accurately assess how much influence he has had.
Dortmund’s offense revolves around three players, Mario Gotze, Marko Reus & Robert Lewandowski. Coincidentally all 3 have been linked to Bayern in the last year and Gotze having signed to join Bayern in the summer (returning to his roots, born in a Munich suburb). While Reus & Gotze are fantastic creative midfielders their offense goes nowhere without the deft touch and skilled finishing of Lewandowski. As witnessed in the 2nd leg of the CL semi in Madrid, on the rare off days for Lewandowski, Dortmund can sometimes find it hard to score the goals necessary to win.
The other major issue is the fitness of Gotze. He left the 2nd leg vs Real Madrid with a hamstring tear and has not been seen on the field since. Gotze is reportedly scrambling to get fit, but his availability and therefore effectiveness is in grave doubt for Saturday. Bayern showed what it can do to a star not at his peak in the last round vs Barca. Even without Gotze, Marko Reus can wreak havoc on a team and he has done so to Bayern going back to his Gladbach days. So Dortmund will not spend too much time pining over Gotze’s absence.
Bayern’s roster can read like a who’s who of national teams but the key cogs are Bastian Schweinsteiger & Javi Martinez paired in the defensive midfield since this allows their attacking teammates free range across the field. Without the solid hold of the middle of the field, Franck Ribery, Robben, and Thomas Muller would be less able to run wild up and down the sides of the field. The two games Bayern has lost in Champions League play this year, Schweinsteiger did not start in either game and played a total of 13 minutes with Bayern losing by a combined 5-1 score. Coincidence?
As noted previously, each team plays pressure defense over the whole field. Bayern might have ‘borrowed’ Dortmund’s formula, but they have improved upon it and to great effect. They also have greater depth at every position which is a credit to greater financial resources and applying them properly. Where the two clubs differ is which avenue they attack from. While Dortmund isn’t particular to one way or the other, Bayern has been consistent in its attacks up the wings over and over again. They ran Dani Alves & Ardiano (and Jordi Alba in the first leg) into the ground and to the brink. So be prepared to see Robben driving down the right side of the field and Ribery up the left and it will be up to Dortmund’s backs Iin Lukasz Pisczek & Marcel Schmelzer to neutralize them. Of course the problem for Dortmund is that behind the first two Bayern guys are their outside backs in Philipp Lahm & David Alaba who are just as keen to run up the backside of unsuspecting defenders. The biggest wildcard in the tactics is Bayern’s Muller who continues to refine his role as finding open space. That is what he does. He doesn’t go to just one place he continually probes for openings and then exploits them and is having his best season as a professional. He could be the ultimate difference maker on Saturday night in Wembley.
This is all on Bayern and it is between their players’ respective ears. Dortmund is the fresh face of European football and with the threat of already being broken apart before they’ve arrived, there is no pressure or expectation on this club to win. Sounds a bit like 1997 when a certain European power in Juventus rolled into Munich for the CL Final as defending champs and we’re soundly beaten 3-1 by Dortmund in their finest hour. Could 2013 be a repeat? Dortmund might be without one of its key cogs in Gotze but they’ve also had a month to figure out a game plan without him and they aren’t a team solely dependent on one player (read Barcelona).
Meanwhile, Bayern still smarting from losses in two of the previous three Champions League Finals and the fact that Dortmund has had some psychological hold on them from the previous three seasons comes in with all the pressure on them. The longer the game stays deadlocked, will it get worse for the Bayern players? Will the questions linger in their heads? Nobody truly knows the answers, but it is food for thought. Bayern is the richer and more flamboyant club and expects to win. Therein lies the pressure. Dortmund can play the ‘Us against the World’ card, Bayern cannot. All of Germany will be watching, Bayern supporters will be cheering for their club, the rest of Germany will be rooting for Dortmund. Regardless for one night it will be the Bundesliga’s finest hour (to steal from Winston Churchill, after all the game’s being played in England).
If Bayern plays to its potential much the way it did in their last two Champions League ties then they should win comfortably. I say 2-1 or 3-1 and as a card carrying Bayern club member it will be about time. But, Dortmund will not be afraid and will not shrink from the challenge. If they sneak in an early goal, everything could change (especially in Bayern’s potentially fragile psyche). That is why they play the game. Football is coming home.