ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae is in Munich this week, preparing to broadcast “der Klassiker” — Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund — on Saturday. (Stream LIVE, 12:30 p.m. ET, ABC and ESPN+). While it’s a chance for Bayern to clinch a record tenth successive title, the future for both clubs remains an open book.
Julian Nagelsmann captured the mood in the Bayern camp perfectly at his Thursday afternoon media conference. There is excitement at the prospect of clinching the league “dahoam” (the Bavarian term for “at home”) at the Allianz Arena before 75,000 against their closest pursuers. For the Bayern coach himself, it’s a special time as he gets ready to celebrate his first major piece of silverware. Yet still there is a nagging, queasy feeling around Germany’s Rekordmeister that this is the season that got away.
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Winning the Meisterschale is the minimum goal for any Bayern team and it only takes on grander significance when augmented by a trophy lift in a different competition. Bayern have come up well short of expectations in the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League — they were thrashed in the former by Borussia Monchengladbach and outwitted in the latter by Villarreal.
Ah, yes, Villarreal. The Spanish submarine specter that will likely haunt the German champions for a while. At least on Saturday, Bayern can allow themselves to come up for air.
It has become fashionable to belittle the club’s merciless annual rite of Bundesliga passage, but 10 in a row is something worth extolling. Bayern fans trek to Munich from far and wide, and for many – their travel movements restricted by the pandemic – this will be an occasion to savour and remember. If they beat Dortmund on Saturday, there might even be a few Weissbierdusche celebrations, which involve players and staff pouring copious amounts of Bavarian wheat beer over each other on the pitch.
Up in Dortmund, where the art of beer brewing dates back to 1293, they generally prefer a Pilsener, not that coach Marco Rose has had any time to enjoy such recreational pleasures in another week of injury and illness nightmares. Borussia Dortmund as a club has become the Pechvogel (the unlucky one) in the casualties department.
As Rose said himself on Thursday, it would be quicker to list players who are available than to outline who’s not and why. U.S. international Giovanni Reyna has suffered one setback after another this term and is sidelined for the long haul. Star man Erling Haaland has been restricted to 20 appearances and continues to play through the pain barrier.
Now it has emerged that keeper Gregor Kobel and Axel Witsel will be missing on Saturday due to an ankle injury and infection, respectively. The Schwarzgelben (black and yellows) might want to temporarily call themselves the Schwarzblauen (“the black and blues”). No Bundesliga club has taken a more severe bruising in recent months.
Yet for all that, BVB are 13 points better off than they were this time last season. Granted there have been meltdowns, such as at home against Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig, and with Bayern themselves making the odd mistake, some will argue that they should be closer points-wise to the top spot. Given the BVB personnel problems, I’m not sure it was doable.
More worrying and irksome was — like Bayern — Dortmund’s cup eliminations, from the DFB-Pokal against St. Pauli and the Europa League, against Rangers.
From the outside you could be forgiven for thinking Dortmund are inevitably on the way down given the likely departure of Haaland, the demise of Mats Hummels and the possible transfer of top defender Manuel Akanji.
Not necessarily so.
The Schwarzgelben have already signed Niklas Sule from Bayern and are continuing their pursuit of Freiburg’s Nico Schlotterbeck and Salzburg’s Karim Adeyemi. Sebastian Kehl, who succeeds retiring sporting chief Michael Zorc in the summer, will have a busy time but there are plenty of good players in the Bundesliga and farther afield who will always see Dortmund as a prestigious address.
The other less discussed asset is the youth system. Last week, on an idyllic spring Saturday, 17-year-old Tom Rothe was thrust into the Ruhrpott sunshine in the 6-1 thumping of Wolfsburg, and delivered a sparkling performance capped off by a headed goal to open the scoring. Two other youngsters later got their first Bundesliga minutes, Jamie Bynoe-Gittens and Lion Semic. This is a particularly able crop coming through, under the aegis of U-19 coach Mike Tullberg. Having already won the western championship, Dortmund now have designs on the national league and cup crowns. Don’t underestimate the BVB Talentschmiede (talent factory.)
Bayern have always been less reliant on younger players than Dortmund, priding themselves on mostly signing the finished article. That some of their recent squad signings – for instance, Bouna Sarr and Marc Roca – have not been Bayern standard is the reason why sporting chief Hasan Salihamidzic has been so widely criticised. At times it has left the overall squad weaker than for example a club such as Leipzig and certainly shallower than most of their Champions League competitors.
Will they go to the now frequently drilled Leipzig again to try to sign pressing monster Konrad Laimer? Might they try to pip Dortmund at the post for Schlotterbeck? It’s going to be a summer spent under scrutiny for Salihamidzic, technical director Marco Neppe and CEO/supervisory board chair Oliver Kahn.
Contract issues have been the main focus in the media. Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, Manuel Neuer and Serge Gnabry all have deals terminating in 2023. With Muller and Neuer at least, Bayern are close to getting everything over the line.
On the pitch, Bayern need significantly better leadership for the long haul. They have talented defenders but lack a natural authority figure at the back.
It arguably applies off the pitch as well. At times this season, Nagelsmann himself was left to serve as statesman/spokesman/diplomat on all manner of topics while Kahn and Salihamidzic fell silent in comparison. Former president Uli Hoeness, while not universally popular outside the Bayern sphere, had a way of using his gargantuan status to take the pressure off those around him.
Bayern will win the famous shield for a 10th time in a row soon, and there’s a very real chance it will happen on Saturday in the Bundesliga’s showcase match to the world.
Then we can look forward to a different close season Fernduell (a duel fought at long distance), which will be fascinating in determining the future prospects of Germany’s big two.
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