Bayern Munich getting unexpected title test from Borussia Dortmund
And all of a sudden, it's on.
Until now, Bayern Munich had been privately happy that Borussia Dortmund were keeping them on their toes. Dortmund were making sure that Pep Guardiola's team were staying focussed and couldn't just sleepwalk to the end of the domestic season the way they had done in 2013-14 and 2014-15, with damaging knock-on effects in the Champions League.
But the dynamics have changed in midweek following the champions' home 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Mainz and Dortmund's 2-0 win away to Darmstadt. Saturday's tussle at the Signal Iduna Park is no longer a largely inconsequential show fight that only Bayern could really win, but a very uncomfortable appointment at the home of the best Bundesliga team in 2016. Bayern's poor performance on Wednesday has allowed the Black and Yellows to take a shot at them. They have gone from useful sparring partner to dangerous challenger.
"We certainly mustn't lose on Saturday," warned Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. That's not strictly true. A five-point lead provide some cushion against a loss. Using a boxing analogy, only Dortmund can be knocked out -- if the gap goes back to eight points -- not the league leaders.
Rummenigge isn't so much worried about a possible defeat but about the bad vibes that would inevitably follow Bayern back home to Bavaria. Good results since the winter breaks have kept the underlying tension behind the scenes and in the dressing room at bay. A loss at Dortmund, however, could have a similarly corrosive effect as the 3-1 defeat at Porto last February, when the problems between Guardiola and club doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt boiled over and resulted in the latter resigning from his duties.
To be sure, there's nothing intrinsically new to this situation. Anyone who's followed Bayern's fortunes over the last few decades knows that they're only ever one big defeat away from a crisis or at least from "Bayern in crisis" headlines. Usually, the fault-line runs through the dressing room. Unhappy players feel emboldened to speak out or brief against the manager when the team's not winning.
Bayern's dominance in the league over the last three seasons has been such, however, that there have literally been no seriously damaging defeats, and as a consequence, little scope for the cracks becoming apparent. Bayern, for example, lost 3-0 to Dortmund at the Allianz Arena in 2014 but a 30-point gap between two sides meant that the result hardly registered.
On Saturday, by contrast, Dortmund would only be two points adrift if they win, with momentum on their side and Guardiola feeling the squeeze. All they have to do is to avenge the 5-1 drubbing they received in Munich earlier this season. It won't be easy, naturally.
Bayern are trying hard to pave the way for their manager's friendly departure. But if their minimum target for the season -- winning the Bundesliga -- will come under threat, the lack of physical warmth between club, coach and players would make for a frosty atmosphere over his last three months in the job.
Guardiola's relationship with the board is what Germans call, slightly mockingly, a Zweckgemeinschaft: a pragmatic union for the sake of common purpose, largely free of emotional ties. You can win big trophies that way -- not all successful managers are loved by their superiors and subordinates -- but Bayern's history has taught them that the real togetherness they experienced in 2001 and 2013 is more conducive to lifting the biggest prize of all, the Champions League.
Guardiola has set such high standards of coaching during his time in Bavaria that defeats have become shocking aberrations to the Bayern faithful. An instinctive reaction has been to look for mistakes in his line-up.
For example, vs. Mainz, should Mehdi Benatia and Franck Ribery have started? Why didn't Mario Gotze come on? And was he right to rest Philipp Lahm, Joshua Kimmich and Xabi Alonso? It's frankly impossible to say. What is known though is that Bayern had enough quality players who created enough chances to win the game.
Dortmund, with their 103 goals scored this season, will surely put pressure on Bayern's make-shift defence like no team has been able to do this season. Guardiola's men are not unlike his Barcelona, in the sense that they always do look vulnerable when getting attacked. The problem for opposition teams is that they hardly get a chance to do just that. The recent Juventus game, a strange combination of total dominance and unsettling vulnerability at the back, neatly illustrated the two sides of this team.
Strangely, Guardiola's hand has not been strengthened by the return of Benatia, the only proper centre-back at his disposal. Benatia's introduction in Turin coincided with the home side's resurgence. And against Mainz, the Moroccan international lacked the positional fidelity Guardiola's high defensive line requires.
Tuchel was out-thought in the first meeting, as Jerome Boateng's long balls caused havoc for Dortmund's back four. The 42-year-old will have learned from that mistake and fancy his chances. There will be no Boateng in the Bayern lineup on Saturday, but there will be 80,000 fans screaming their heads off.
Dortmund might not play with the same devastating fluidity they showed before the start of the season -- star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has dropped off, ever so slightly, performance-wise -- but Guardiola was not paying one of his many empty, half-baked compliments when he said that Dortmund had evolved into "a completely different side" this season.
Tuchel has slowed down previous manager Jurgen Klopp's heavy-metal football, to make it a bit more deliberate and sustainable, but without compromising on the cutting edge up front. This team doesn't attack you with chainsaw anymore; they cut you open more elegantly, with a foil.
The Dortmund manager will try to downplay the occasion. He wants his team to play the way they have approached the whole season: not with the pressure to win the title but simply trying to win each game, to manoeuvre themselves into position where they can benefit from Bayern's mistakes. But Dortmund can hurt Bayern: "We know it and they know it," said defender Erik Durm.
Few thought such a day would ever come this season. But now it's here.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.