Never before have three Bundesliga teams topped their respective groups at the end of a Champions League group stage. That record could end this year, however, as Dortmund and Schalke top their respective groups while Bayern are tied on points with co-leaders Valencia.
Bayern have traditionally led the way for Germany in continental play, having been crowned European champions four times. And this season, apart from an enigmatic 3-1 loss to BATE in Belarus, they have enjoyed plenty of success in Europe, overcoming Lille in France and at home, as well as Valencia at the Allianz Arena.
The real surprise for many has been the success of both Dortmund and Schalke. BVB may be two-time defending Bundesliga champions, but Juergen Klopp’s side had proven naive in the Europa League and Champions League over the last two seasons, in both instances playing well but failing to hold on to positive results.
This season, despite having been drawn in a group of death with Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax, Dortmund have turned over a new leaf. Klopp’s side have not trailed for even a minute, and outplayed the Spanish champions in a 2-1 win at the Westfalenstadion.
They have been held to draws on two occasions, but in each case (away to City and Real) only conceded a last-gasp equalizer. And even Roberto Mancini admitted his side did not deserve their point.
Dortmund are by no means the most successful side in Europe in terms of points, but as performances go, they may well be the most convincing. While Manchester United have labored to 12 points against the likes of Braga and Cluj, BVB have confidently taken on the champions of three of Europe’s top leagues and played superlative football.
Drawn into a group similar to that which Dortmund faced last year, Schalke have had a much better go than their Ruhr rivals. They comprehensively outplayed Arsenal as they took three points at the Emirates, and also beat Olympiacos in Piraeus.
Surprisingly, Schalke’s home form has let them down. Despite playing better football, poor finishing and occasionally lax defending saw them held to 2-2 draws against both Arsenal and Montpellier.
All three German teams have played well in Europe thus far, but it’s a long road to the final at Wembley. And now the question must be asked: Which German team is best suited to go the distance?
The answer is a complicated one, based on many variables that cannot be forecast. Injuries and suspensions are the most obvious and unpredictable factors, but there is more. Schalke, for example, know all too well that form can play a huge role: it was only two years ago that the Koenigsblauen hammered then-holders Inter 7-3 in the quarterfinals before being dealt a 6-1 aggregate defeat by Manchester United in the next round.
Although still a very young side, Schalke have experience and a pedigree in Europe borne of their semifinals run. Raul and Manuel Neuer, heroes of the 2010-11 team, are gone, but the likes of Julian Draxler and Kyriakos Papadopoulos have come of age while newcomers like Ibrahim Afellay, Lewis Holtby and Roman Neustaedter have added class to the midfield.
In terms of individual ability, Schalke top their group and are arguably in the top half of the 16 teams that will advance to the knockout rounds. Especially if they are seeded in the first elimination stage, they have a good chance to reach the quarterfinals.
Anything further, however, is a stretch. Huub Stevens has at least one defensively questionable fullback in Christian Fuchs (two if Benedikt Hoewedes plays centrally), and the Gelsenkirchen side often concede too many chances. Schalke are a very good team with exceptional depth in midfield. However, even on their very best day, there are a handful of clubs that can more than match them.
Dortmund are the wild card among German clubs, and perhaps those in Europe overall. They set a record for points in a Bundesliga season in 2011-12, and their class at the highest level has been proven in wins in five out of their last six fixtures with Bayern.
Their dominant displays against Real Madrid and Manchester City prove they can reliably match any European club too, home or away. Accordingly, they must be considered candidates to reach the final.
While Dortmund have proven they have no reason to fear any club in Europe, two factors play against them. The first is that their young players have no experience in the Champions League knockout rounds, with the club only now beginning to recreate a profile on the international stage.
The second is that Dortmund are sorely lacking in depth. Their backup right-back has spent much of his career playing in midfield in the 2. Bundesliga, while their reserve striker has never scored more than seven goals in a league season.
The Ruhr side play an extremely exhausting brand of football, which makes them competitive at the highest level but also making their players more prone to injury (consider Sven Bender) and fatigue. As impressively as BVB have played, one gets the impression that they are one or two injuries or suspensions from elimination.
Bayern are the only German team to have lost a Champions League game this season, but their pedigree makes them a safer bet to find their way to Wembley. With very few individual exceptions, the same squad reached two Champions League finals in three years. No key player is on the wrong side of 30, and each has plenty of experience at the highest level.
Bayern are without question a better side this season than last. Bastian Schweinsteiger is fit once more, Thomas Mueller is back at his best, and the summer additions of Javi Martinez, Dante, Xherdan Shaqiri, Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizarro have greatly bolstered their depth.
These improvements could make all the difference on more fronts than one. Injuries and fatigue have hindered the Bavarians’ success in recent years, and it is no stretch to assert that the absence of David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Luiz Gustavo cost them the 2012 Champions League final.
Bayern’s top foreign competition, Barcelona and Real Madrid, have looked awfully fragile in defense and are below their level of previous years. Assuming Mario Gomez recovers form and fitness by the time the knockout rounds begin, Bayern may be the team to beat in Europe. That is, only if they can exorcise the demons that have haunted their players in major club and international tournament finals.
The knockout round draws, injuries, suspensions and form are all unforeseeable, and any combination thereof could play a significant role in the success of any of Germany’s Champions League representatives. Schalke look to be a quarterfinals-worthy team, while Bayern and Dortmund have shown the class to even be winners in May. The question is what will happen between now and then.
A bet made on passion and instinct would be a bet on Dortmund. They’re an explosive team with everything to gain and no expectations, but are in a very delicate situation. The safe wager is and always has been on Bayern. Die Roten have more experience, more depth, and a culture of winning that extends for decades. If both teams make the final, though, it’s anyone’s match.