Over the years, the marquee matchup between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund has usually always meant a battle for trophies or German football supremacy.
Whether it was the now-classic German Cup final in 2012, the league title races going back to 2011 or, most recently, the Champions League final, Bayern and Dortmund became a rivalry that transcended German football.
So much so that it even adopted a title of its own, "Der Klassiker," a take on the storied and heated rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The German Clasico has become the most anticipated matchup in German football and drawn in attention from around the world.
This year, however, the games have become more anti-climactic, largely due to Bayern’s dominance in the league. Pep Guardiola’s side wrapped up the league title in record time and are now focusing most of their attention on trying to repeat their Champions League success of last year.
Dortmund, meanwhile, exited Europe at the hands of Real Madrid this week, were out of the title race before the season even reached the halfway mark and have a difficult semifinal match against Wolfsburg in the German Cup coming up next week that they admittedly prioritize.
Bayern have rested several of their first-choice players in the league in the last two weeks while Dortmund and coach Jurgen Klopp have been struggling to adjust to their many injuries throughout the season. On paper, it will look more like a pre-season friendly than the intense, influential rivalry of recent years.
However, it would be short-sighted to dismiss what will still be an important match for both sides but for very different reasons this time.
For one, Dortmund can use the Bayern match and the remainder of the season as early preparation for next year.
With more than half of his first-choice players missing this season, Klopp has been forced to rotate and experiment across three different competitions this season, the weight of which has taken a toll on the team and their performances.
Yet Dortmund were just a goal away from potentially reaching the Champions League semifinals. In the league, they are still favorites to finish second and could book their place in the German Cup final with a win against Wolfsburg on Tuesday.
Klopp took a giant gamble starting the inexperienced Oliver Kirch and Milos Jojic against Madrid, but the risk paid off.
With Ilkay Gundogan still struggling and Sebastian Kehl announcing he will be with the club for one more year, Klopp needs to think ahead, and in Kirch and Jojic especially, he has two reliable and promising players to work with.
Whether Bayern field their second-string lineup or not, Guardiola’s team will be up for the game. For Dortmund, that means a great chance to prepare for the all-important Wolfsburg game midweek. While somewhat inconvenient, the Bayern match can serve as good preparation for Dortmund to see out the season on the highest point possible.
Similarly, Guardiola can use the Dortmund game as a test of his own. The Bayern coach alluded to Madrid and Dortmund being the two best counter-attacking sides in the world. And the similarities are not unwarranted.
Guardiola has been fine-turning Bayern’s defense against counterattacks all season long, and nowhere will that be tested more than against the speedy, dangerous Dortmund attack.
While both teams may rest players ahead of their midweek Cup games, Guardiola and Klopp will still want to see their players perform at their very best. The rotation will also add as additional motivation for players that would otherwise not participate in such a high-profile match.
Of course, one cannot overlook the Lewandowski-to-Bayern narrative that will inevitably rear its head in this game.
Dortmund have relied heavily on the Polish striker to make the difference this season, and he will most likely line up against Bayern as well.
Lewandowski’s performance against the club he will join in the summer will take center stage on Saturday. So far, he has lived up to his promise that he will give his all for the team until the day he departs, and his performance could decide the outcome of the game.
Then there is also the much-publicized spat between the two clubs off the pitch this past week, which will no doubt add fuel to the fire.
Bayern presidential candidate Karl Hopfner hit out at Dortmund CEO Joachim Watzke after he claimed a 2004 loan from the Bavarians did not save the club as many have made out. In that proclamation, he indirectly questioned then-president Uli Hoeness’ altruism.
Hopfner, who could succeed Hoeness, deemed those comments "disgraceful," as reported by ESPN FC, and even went so far as to compare Watzke to fictional German literary character Baron Munchhausen, who was renowned for his tall tales.
Wazke responded insisting the loan was repaid in full a year later and played no part in the club’s financial turnaround before questioning the credibility of Bayern officials over the years.
Suffice to say, if there is a lack of fire on the pitch, it is burning bright in the boardrooms, and even the mildest of the Klassiker will be underlined by the two clubs continuing quarrels.
Listening to Hopfner and Wazke, it seems that the Klassiker is alive and well and still very much matters.
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