Dortmund's progress will be measured by result vs. Bayern
DORTMUND, Germany -- On Saturday, the Bundesliga will slowly but surely turn onto its home stretch. There are seven games left to play after the final international break of the season. Borussia Dortmund go up against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, which marks the start of a tough fixture list from now until the end of May. After their trip to Bavaria, BVB host in-form Stuttgart, face off against second-place Schalke in the Revierderby and play Bayer Leverkusen, another rival for the Champions League spots.
This four-game spell will very much determine if the Black and Yellows indeed clinch a top-four spot, which earns them direct qualification for the 2018-19 Champions League. Thus far, Peter Stoger's side has clinched 20 points from the first 10 league fixtures in 2018, boasting the same points tally they had amassed under Peter Bosz in the first half of the season after 10 rounds. With the Dutch manager at the helm, a steep drop from second to eighth place ensued and it's tough to predict whether the Ruhr side will fare better this time around.
Saturday's clash against Bayern will be a good indicator as to how BVB are set up to handle this difficult run. The Bundesliga's PR machine has been running hot in the build-up to what is described as "Der Klassiker," a term that was established in 2013 since both teams faced in the Champions League final.
The hype to sell what is supposed to be the league's most pristine match-up, however, stands in stark contrast to reality as little is left of the tension that can be felt when the two powerhouses go head-to-head. Instead, the choreographed hype comes across as a cry for help: Bayern could clinch their sixth consecutive title on Saturday if Schalke fail to beat Freiburg earlier in the afternoon. Children born after 2010 have yet to consciously witness a title race in the German top flight, which is cause for grave concern also at Bayern's front office.
Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge's decision to lash out at second division side St. Pauli last week after the German Football League had voted to keep the 50+1 rule in place can be seen as a sign of panic.
"With the vote, the branch on which competitiveness sits has been weakened by a mediocre team from the second division. Don't forget this," said Rummenigge, as Bayern were one of four parties that voted for the abolishment of the 50+1 rule in order to open up the league to outside investors and with the hope that fresh money would raise the level of competition in the Bundesliga for Bayern.
Whether the lopsided nature of the Bundesliga will reflect on the pitch this Saturday at the Allianz Arena, however, remains to be seen. "Bayern Munich are not playing their best football," Marco Reus told Bundesliga.com, "but they end up winning regardless." RB Leipzig showed prior to the international week that the league leaders are vulnerable, emerging with a 2-1 victory over Jupp Heynckes's side.
"You need to break their rhythm with own spells of possession," said Stoger on Thursday ahead of the game, proclaiming that he has learned from December's 2-1 cup defeat in Munich. "We won't play with a back five this time around."
Stoger will have to make do without Reus, who is unsurprisingly ruled out with muscular problems after starting eight of nine games since making a comeback from an eight-month injury spell. The absence of Reus is naturally a heavy blow to Dortmund, as his presence often causes opponents to take a more cautious approach. Any worries may be lessened with a fully rested Christian Pulisic, who did not travel to his national team during the international break.
Arguably, the absence of centre-back Omer Toprak, who is also nursing muscular problems, is a greater concern for Stoger. The 28-year-old has seen his form reinvigorated under the Austrian coach in a promising partnership with winter signing Manuel Akanji. The two have formed a formidable centre-back pairing in recent Bundesliga games.
Meanwhile, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who will replace Toprak, has been struggling severely this season, making too many poor decisions with regards to his positioning. The Greece defender will also play for his future at Dortmund when going up against Robert Lewandowski as his current contract is set to expire in 2019. A famous match at the Allianz Arena could persuade BVB officials to offer a contract extension.
In general, Bayern vs. Dortmund has looked more enticing from a tactical point of view in recent seasons, especially when Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel would turn the football pitch into something resembling a giant chess board. Most likely, Heynckes and Stoger will both opt for a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Dortmund have a new element to their game in Chelsea loanee Michy Batshuayi, which might be a key to grabbing a result on Saturday. Unlike Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the 24-year-old is able to retain possession deeper on the field; this is vital against Bayern, who quickly become susceptible to counter-attacks once their first defensive intervention by their centre-backs is nullified.
The Belgium striker could provide the outlet for Dortmund to secure much-needed stints of possession as Stoger had alluded to in the pre-match conference. However, it will take more than just a good day for Batshuayi in order to teach Bayern their first home loss of the season. BVB will have to hope the Bavarians already have their focus on Tuesday's away leg of their Champions League quarterfinal against Sevilla. Ultimately, Bayern's season will be judged by how they perform on the European stage: a result against Dortmund is currently not considered a benchmark.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.