Der Klassiker Has Been a Transient Affair, but Bayern-Dortmund Promises to Last

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2017

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and former team-mate Mats Hummels chas the ball in the first Klassiker of the season, in November.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and former team-mate Mats Hummels chas the ball in the first Klassiker of the season, in November.Associated Press

You can be forgiven for counting down the days to Saturday. Der Klassiker, the meeting of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, is not the most important match of either's season, but it will be one of the most keenly contested.

You can take a thorough look around Europe's fixtures this weekend (or, indeed, in most weekends) and, the Madrid derby aside, it's hard to find something else that promises to get the blood pumping to the same extent.

There is no such thing as a dead game between these two, as their meeting at Signal Iduna Park in May 2013 underlined. The pair were coming together in an ostensibly dead rubber 21 days before they met again in the Champions League final—and they were 20 points apart in the table, with Bayern taking back the title in some style—but there never seemed like any will to keep their powder dry for Wembley.

A bruising encounter peaked (or troughed, depending on your view) with Rafinha being shown the red card for elbowing Kevin Grosskreutz midway through the second half.

So even with a 15-point gap between the pair as it stands—BVB look secure enough in the top four, even though they will still aim to secure the place in the first three that will remove the inconvenience of a Champions League playoff in August—there still promises to be plenty of spice to proceedings at the Allianz Arena as evening draws in on Saturday and the world watches on.

It's worth noting that the whole German concept of Der Klassiker, though, has tended to be a transient one. Depending on the prevailing sporting wind of past years, it has been Hamburg, Schalke or even Werder Bremen in the ring. Bayern versus the next best, basically.

Yet this particular Klassiker is proving to be a more enduring one, and Dortmund deserve every bit of credit for their part in making it so. They set the tone for the current climate with their successive title wins in 2011 and 2012, which really got under Bayern's skin—and, arguably, which pushed them to a best-ever level of power and dominance.

"Bayern can claim that they are the only German club for which success is a natural thing," Bleacher Report's Dortmund correspondent Lars Pollmann told this column. "So Dortmund winning the league title twice and humiliating them in the 2012 cup final (on the way to the double) was certainly a catalyst for their development in the last few years, where I'd say they went from a top seven or so side in Europe to a top three side."

Ottmar Hitzfeld won the Champions League with Dortmund then brought the trophy to Bavaria four years later.
Ottmar Hitzfeld won the Champions League with Dortmund then brought the trophy to Bavaria four years later.LUCA BRUNO/Associated Press/Associated Press

To put that intrusion into Bayern's hegemony into context, we're forced back to the mid-1990s for the previous occasion on which they failed to win the league for a period of more than one season; that, again, saw Dortmund claiming the title in 1995 and 1996, in the glorious era of Ottmar Hitzfeld at Westfalen, which culminated in the 1997 Champions League triumph. Hitzfeld, of course, later went on to enjoy even greater success as Bayern coach.

That last clause gives a clue as to why this rivalry—at least on the scale of the direct confrontation, seeing as Dortmund can't keep pace over a season—is easy to cherish. It has a freshness of being reborn in the modern era, post-Dortmund's flirtation with collapse in 2005, but it has a legitimate history as well.

The rebuild that followed that financial meltdown was steady enough, but few expected BVB to end up at the point that they did at the start of this decade.

Now, even if they haven't found a way to compete with Bayern in the Bundesliga since that last title win, they have at least established themselves as the second team in the league—and with their exciting recruitment policy tying up young talents like Ousmane Dembele, Raphael Guerreiro, Alexander Isak and now Mahmoud Dahoud, who will arrive from Borussia Monchengladbach this summer, they clearly plan to stay there for the foreseeable future.

Ousmane Dembele and Raphael Guerreiro, here with Mario Gotze, are cornerstones of Dortmund's future.
Ousmane Dembele and Raphael Guerreiro, here with Mario Gotze, are cornerstones of Dortmund's future.Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Dortmund are the first club other than Bayern to enter the expanded financial elite in Europe, allowing them to consistently be stronger than the 16 other clubs in the Bundesliga," Pollmann continued. "Coupled with getting lucky with two coaching decisions—Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel—and smart transfer business, they've been able to stay on Bayern's heels longer than teams such as Werder Bremen or Bayer Leverkusen, who had that status as the number two for a while earlier in this millennium."

Success breeds expectation, of course (as Tuchel is finding out this season after his excellent debut campaign), and playing second fiddle to Bayern has not been easy, which has added something to this matchup. Nor has the perception—at least internationally, if not necessarily within Germany—of being some sort of nursery club for Bayern following the successive transfers of Mario Gotze, Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels.

The now-returned Gotze's 2013 exit to Bayern hit fans hard.
The now-returned Gotze's 2013 exit to Bayern hit fans hard.Petr David Josek/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Losing the prodigal son (Gotze) to Bayern hurt," Pollmann reflected. "Lewandowski was more of a 'that's the business' feeling. The real kicker was losing Hummels last season, because it was the final nail in the coffin for the idea that Dortmund can go toe-to-toe with Bayern in Germany. When the captain leaves the ship to your biggest domestic rival, that stings."

Though Hummels was going home to the club in which he grew up, he had been fully adopted by Westfalen and the fans. Just like Klopp before him, he is missed on more than just a football level, according to Pollman.

Writing shortly before Hummels' transfer back to Bavaria was confirmed last summer, Pollman said the Germany centre-back "would be impossible to replace," for what he meant off the pitch as well as on it.

"He's the team's mouthpiece, a true ambassador," Pollman continued. "He's also a face of the club, especially since Klopp left and the less charismatic Tuchel took over in 2015."

That's in the past now, and both teams have moved on. Yet even if Hummels is set to add more trophies to his collection at Bayern, all bets are off when it comes to facing his former club.

He will remember his first trip back to Dortmund in November, when Gotze turned him inside out to create Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's winner as he endured a torrid afternoon. For all their superiority, there's just something about Dortmund that nags at Bayern.

"Bayern are so strong in every aspect that most games are foregone conclusions," Pollmann reiterated. "Dortmund have been competitive enough in direct matchups that Bayern need to actually play to their fullest in order not to lose. For Dortmund, they've always played best as the underdog going back to Klopp's time at the club—and Bayern are the only opponent against whom they can really consider themselves that."

They will be in that role again at the Allianz on Saturday night. Tuchel will count on his players rising to the occasion again, while Bayern will welcome a rare opportunity to really stretch themselves domestically in what's turning out to be a challenging week, as they follow a surprise defeat at Hoffenheim and warm up for the visit of Real Madrid.

With a quick Bayern-BVB reprise programmed for 18 days later, this time in the DfB Pokal semi-final, there's no doubt that this one matters. When these two get together, it always does.  

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