The much-anticipated Champions League final is just 10 days away, and Bayern Munich and Dortmund are preparing to square off in an unprecedented all-German finale.
The finalists have overcome stiff opposition, including Spanish powerhouses Real Madrid and Barcelona, Italian champions Juventus and last season's Premier League title winners, Manchester City. And now, in the 50th anniversary of the Bundesliga's founding, they have the chance to showcase the league's class on the greatest stage of all.
To the benefit of viewers and the Bundesliga overall, no player from either squad is suspended for the final. A year ago, Bayern and Chelsea had a combined seven players barred from contesting the final. But in what will be a coming-out party for the German league, Bayern and Dortmund are set to be at or near full strength.
The possibility of injury is the only obstacle that could stand between any BVB or FCB player and his availability to play at Wembley. Bayern will be without centre-back Holger Badstuber, but are fully adapted to dealing with his absence, having missed the 24-year-old since early December.
Apart from Badstuber, both sides have a key central playmaker struggling for fitness. Toni Kroos sustained a groin tear against Juventus last month and is expected to return to Bayern training just days before the final. Whether or not he is pronounced fit to play, however, he is likely to be named to Jupp Heynckes' starting XI. Arjen Robben has been in scintillating form as the 23-year-old's replacement, and the Dutchman at his best is a safer choice than Kroos playing in his first game in over seven weeks.
On the opposite side of the pitch, Mario Gotze is in some danger of missing the final due to a hamstring strain. His injury was relatively minor, however, and the 20-year-old returned to individual training this week. Last Friday, Jurgen Klopp revealed his plan to prepare Gotze for the final, with one week of individual training followed by another with the full team in his plans.
It's not an ideal situation for Dortmund that the final will be Gotze's first game in almost a month, but Klopp doesn't have the luxury of a €25 million, world-class backup like Robben as an option. Gotze will likely start and be substituted in the second half depending on how he copes with fatigue. Without Gotze, Klopp will likely use Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender in defensive midfield, with Ilkay Gundogan promoted to Gotze's central attacking position.
Assuming there are no further injuries, the only question marks in either side's first XI for the final are based on tactics.
For Bayern, Jupp Heynckes' squad is almost entirely decided: Manuel Neuer will play in goal, Mario Mandzukic as the striker, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez as the holding midfielders behind an attacking trio of Robben, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller. Philipp Lahm and David Alaba will play on the right and left of defense, respectively, and Dante will be one of the two centre-backs.
There is a question mark as to whether Jerome Boateng or Daniel van Buyten will get the nod as Dante's partner in central defense. The veteran Belgian was Heynckes' preferred secondary centre-back for most of the second round, but was benched in favor of the German in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals with Barcelona.
Facing a Barca side known for quick and agile attackers with little aerial presence, Boateng was a natural choice over the slower Van Buyten, whose supremacy in the air is now his saving grace. Van Buyten and Boateng were played side-by-side in the second leg and in the Bundesliga against Dortmund recently, and it appears that the Belgian has the edge in Heynckes' mind: He started in an otherwise full Bayern first XI last weekend as die Roten beat Augsburg 3-0.
Dortmund's squad is similarly well-established. Roman Weidenfeller will play in goal, behind a defensive quartet of Lukasz Piszczek, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer. Robert Lewandowski will be the central striker, and if Gotze is fit he'll will start between wingers Marco Reus and Jakub Blaszczykowski.
In defensive midfield, Ilkay Gundogan can expect to be partnered with Sven Bender. The latter was not always first-choice this season but has displaced the aging Sebastian Kehl in recent months. After poor performances in the first legs of ties against Shakhtar Donetsk and Malaga, the 33-year-old captain was used only as a substitute in Champions League play.
Although not at Kehl's level in terms of aerial presence or passing ability, Bender's seemingly limitless energy makes him a natural fit in Klopp's high-tempo pressing system. He is almost certain to start.
Just 10 days away, the Champions League final is set to be a great improvement upon that of last season. Bayern are favorites, but Dortmund have proved themselves as Europe's most worthy challengers. And both sides can be expected to field world-class lineups.
Predicted Bayern XI: Neuer; Lahm, Van Buyten, Dante, Alaba; Javi Martinez, Schweinsteiger; Robben, Muller, Ribery; Mandzukic
Predicted Dortmund XI: Weidenfeller; Piszczek, Subotic, Hummels, Schmelzer; Bender, Gundogan; Blaszczykowski, Gotze, Reus; Lewandowski
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