Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund face off on Saturday in the DFB-Pokal final, a match that could tip the balance of Bundesliga power in either team’s direction.
The Bavarians hammered BVB 3-0 at the Signal-Iduna Park in November and won the Bundesliga title by a comfortable, 19-point margin ahead of the league’s runners-up from the Ruhr. But Dortmund leveled the league head-to-head record with a 3-0 win in Munich in April, and also beat Bayern 4-2 in the DFL-Superpokal in what was Pep Guardiola’s first competitive match at the helm of the German giants.
Blighted by injuries, Dortmund were unable to keep pace with Bayern in the first half of the season. They’ve since adapted and found their form, and despite being without the injured Ilkay Gundogan, Sven Bender, Neven Subotic and Jakub Blaszczykowski, they should provide formidable resistance.
Bayern, meanwhile, have a squad of world-class players but will have to do without Thiago Alcantara, who was diagnosed with a torn meniscus this week and has been ruled out of action until the beginning of next season. The fitness of Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Mandzukic is also in question—Sky reporter Torben Hoffmann reported on his Twitter account that the latter two will not start in Berlin, while Bild claimed on Friday that Ribery will likely be replaced by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in the Bayern lineup.
Even with the injuries, Bayern vs. Dortmund should be an exciting clash of German titans—a tactical battle that will likely be decided on the little details. Here’s a look at the key head-to-head matchups that could tilt the scale:
Arjen Robben vs. Marcel Schmelzer and Kevin Grosskreutz
With Franck Ribery out of form as of late, Arjen Robben has taken it upon himself to be the go-to man for Bayern. A direct player with a lethal left foot, the Dutch winger needs no introduction. He scored 20 goals and gave 17 assists for Bayern in all competitions this season, including three goals in as many games against BVB.
Dortmund will have to do a better job of defending against Robben than they did in their first two encounters of the season with Bayern, but Jurgen Klopp will have a wide range of options available. Arguably his best defensive pair of left-sided players are full-back Marcel Schmelzer and winger Kevin Grosskreutz, who will double up on the 30-year-old.
Robben scored twice when teamed with Philipp Lahm against Schmelzer and Marco Reus in the Superpokal, and he scored once when used as a left-sided player supported by full-back David Alaba against Grosskreutz and Jakub Blaszczykowski. Backed by Rafinha against Erik Durm and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in April, he was unable to hit the target.
Regardless of who he faces, Robben will be a real danger man for the Bavarians. He's scored more goals in his career against BVB than any other team, and he even found the net with his head (a rarity) against Dortmund last July.
Marco Reus vs. Javi Martinez and Philipp Lahm
If there's one Dortmund player who can strike fear into any team, it's Marco Reus. The versatile attacker ended the season on a heroic run of form, scoring 11 goals and assisting eight more in BVB's final 13 games of the season.
Reus ended the campaign having scored and assisted 23 goals apiece in 43 appearances for BVB and is among the leading candidates for German Footballer of the Year. He's thrived in a central role as of late, and despite Bayern's many injuries, the forward will come head-to-head with a strong holding midfield that more likely than not will consist of Javi Martinez and Philipp Lahm.
A defender throughout his career, Lahm will naturally be wary of Reus. But he will be somewhat distracted by his duty of distributing the ball from deep areas. Martinez, on the other hand, will see less of the ball and will bear more responsibility in confronting Reus, with Lahm as his backup in defense. The Spaniard gained a reputation for being one of the world's best counterattack-breakers last season, and although he hasn't often been used in such a role during the current campaign, he will surely be needed in Berlin.
The key to the tactical battle between Reus and the Bayern midfielders will be whether the BVB man can find space between the opposing center backs and holding midfielders. If Martinez and Lahm can stop him in midfield, BVB will find it very hard to break into the attacking third. But if he has space to accelerate and run at the center backs, Reus could decide the game.
Robert Lewandowski vs. Jerome Boateng
One of the deciding factors of the 2013 Champions League Final was Jerome Boateng's heroic performance against Robert Lewandowski.
The Bayern center-back had previously been criticized for often losing focus and generally lacking the class to be a top defender. But in the final, and not long after Lewandowski put four goals past Real Madrid, Boateng stepped to the fore and had a brilliant game. That match silenced the doubters, and ever since then he's been a permanent starter in the Germany team.
Lewandowski hasn't scored in any of Dortmund's three games against Bayern this season and only came on as a substitute in the most recent encounter, but the Pole will draw on experience and the momentous occasion for inspiration.
Lewandowski netted a hat-trick in BVB's Pokal final win over Bayern in 2012. And in what will be his last match at Dortmund, he'll be extra-motivated to bow out on a high note and seal his place among the Dortmund legends.
Mario Gotze vs. His Nerves
In November, Mario Gotze shot an arrow through the hearts of BVB fans when he scored his first goal against his former club. The 21-year-old had come on as a substitute in what was a scoreless game. He scored within 10 minutes, and Dortmund went on to be humiliated with a 3-0 loss at the Signal-Iduna Park.
Gotze was unable to affect the result of April's 3-0 loss to BVB but was perhaps Bayern's best player in that match. Either way, it was a fixture of less significance than the previous, with the Bundesliga title having already been decided.
Saturday's match will be an emotional one for Gotze, who faces his former club for the first time in an elimination tournament, a one-off that will decide whether he or his hometown team will lift a trophy. And especially with Ribery and Robben off form, the pressure will be on the youngster to perform. Despite his critical goal in November, he's been widely considered somewhat of a disappointment this season.
Now facing his former club for a third time (he was injured during the Superpokal), Gotze will be aiming to redeem himself and solidify his status as first-choice for club, as well as to make an appeal for a starting role for Germany ahead of the World Cup. Gotze has always been a big-game player, having delivered man-of-the-match performances for Dortmund against Bayern in the past. But now the stakes are higher than ever before.