Pulisic, Auba and Co. are formidable but Real Madrid can win in Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid is, already, a 24-karat European Clasico. Make no mistake about it.
History, aggression, ambition, old scores, drama; and there are vital points at stake if the 2013 finalists want to stay in group competition.
This fixture already packs a punch with a horseshoe in its glove, which combines to make it all the more luxurious that the main feature is criss-crossed with individual backstories, the kind of historic narratives that make the latest episode that much more delicious.
Take Zinedine Zidane. His life, his career have been so successful and he's so serene these days that you might be forgiven for thinking that old scars don't hurt. That was until he took part in a documentary for French television this summer in which he talked, with real regret, about his headbutt and red card in the 2006 World Cup final.
So then, what to make of what was surely his most bitter disappointment at a club level?
I believe it's part of the Olympian mythology of the mighty "Zizou" that he managed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his and Juventus' defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the 1997 Champions League final by not only winning that same competition but becoming the first coach ever to retain it.
Now, not for a second am I suggesting that Zidane will go into this, his third tussle with Dortmund as a coach, with anything like revenge for 1997 on his mind. Not a bit of it.
But don't you try to fool me, or yourself, by pretending that whenever he looks at those yellow and black strips, hears the name Dortmund or thinks about that 3-1 hiding he and massive odds-on favourites Juve took that night, 20 years ago in Munich, he doesn't shiver ... he doesn't regret.
"Dortmund is a stadium which lives for the Champions League, which breathes football," the great man pointed out on Monday. "We've never won here, so that's our objective right from the start."
That's a backstory to begin with. But there are more. So many more.
Last season a 2-1 away win slipped through Madrid's hands when Dortmund's golden kid, U.S. star Christian Pulisic, set up a late equaliser for Andre Schurrle.
It's famous that Pulisic loved Luis Figo as a kid; he taught himself the Portuguese' tricks, copied his movements, looked at his balance and cold-blooded reaction around the penalty box. Sometimes Pulisic' father, Mark, still calls Christian his childhood nickname: Figo.
But it wasn't the Figo of Barcelona or Inter who bewitched the Hershey boy, it was the Real Madrid version. Dark countenance, brilliant white shirt, Champions League glory in 2002, semi final defeat in 2003, quarter finals the next year; that version of Figo, Madrid's first modern Galactico inspired the Pulisic we see now.
Andi Herzog, once a brilliant Austrian international, coached Pulisic for the U.S. and goes so far as to suggest that when Barcelona signed Ousmane Dembele they left, in the young American, the better footballer behind.
"Maybe Dembele is the more spectacular," Herzog said, "but in Pulisic Dortmund have a player with a better character and who, over the long term, will play more consistently."
Bet your bottom dollar that while Pulisic is feverishly concentrating on playing for the team this week, Madrid will be watching him and wondering whether his talent, plus his age, plus their constant desire to put one over on Barcelona might make the U.S. star a candidate for next season's market.
Meanwhile, when the Germans warmed up for this test by thrashing Borussia Monchengladbach at the weekend, it was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who looked most threatening with an assist and three goals. His backstory, too, threatens to spill over into Tuesday's theatre in front of the infamous yellow-and-black wall.
For the longest time Aubameyang wanted Madrid and they, he was certain, wanted him. The prolific, lightning-fast Gabon striker said, more than once, that if he left Dortmund he'd prefer it to be for Madrid. And, remarkably, his club's director general, Hans Joachim Watzke, also said earlier this year: "I think we'll be able to keep him for another season but if Madrid [or Barcelona] come in for him his head would turn. But for no other club."
Then, as I understand it, Zidane vetoed the move. He prized harmony, he saw the striker's behaviour as potentially debilitating to the atmosphere he's created at Los Blancos' Valdebebas training ground -- and Zidane wanted Kylian Mbappe.
All of which led Aubameyang to tell Radio Monte Carlo: "I don't have that Madrid dream anymore and I'm not going to talk about them from now on. They don't want me now, it seems."
Crime writer Agatha Christie, plotting dastardly deeds, would look at his wounded feelings, his simmering annoyance and expect him to strike with vengeance in his blood when his ex-suitors, who abandoned him, come visiting on Tuesday night.
Set all of that aside for a moment. Some of it is enjoyable froth, some of it genuinely will surface on Matchday 2 because these themes are what, when woven together, make the Champions League so magical.
But this stadium hasn't hosted a Champions League match since the night of April 12, 2017. News travelled fast: There had been an attack on the Dortmund bus. Marc Bartra was injured. The game was postponed.
For all the controversy that followed the re-scheduling of that quarterfinal first leg against Monaco, the fact that the next night Dortmund's players could not possibly have been within a thousand miles of their best form or mentality, doesn't remove the truth that the contest did in fact take place. Or that this is the first time that famous anthem will be played in this stadium since that controversial evening.
Nuri Sahin was on that bus; he has a backstory of his own. He was once, and is now again, in love with Dortmund. But, when Madrid came calling in 2011, he took a risk. He took a break from the love affair to see whether the grass was greener.
"I had heard my name mentioned in transfer rumours before, but never with Real Madrid," Sahin said. "And now, here they were. The white kits, the Bernabeu, the history."
He was brave, he moved to Spain's capital and the capital of world football, his son was born there, but his career stalled. What must his motivation be to soar against Zidane's team this week?
And for Bartra, who suffered at Madrid's hands while at Barcelona and who must have thought his life was under real threat last April when the team bus was hit by those blasts?
Here they are now, again, at the same stadium, against the reigning champions, hearing the anthem, the wall of sound from Dortmund's fans, their thoughts turned to April, thoughts turned to glory, thoughts turned to their families. Emotions will be hard to contain.
Please don't doubt it.
Now, I could explain the motivation Dani Carvajal (six games against Dortmund, just one win), Cristiano Ronaldo (seven games, four goals but only two wins) Sergio Ramos (eight games, two wins, five bookings) or Toni Kroos (18 matches, only five wins, and two cup final defeats) feel about the yellow-and-black peril they face again.
But try looking at it like this: Madrid carry a burden of this nature everywhere they go. Everyone raises their game, or tries to. Everyone wants to dethrone the king. The motives might be pride, might be emotional, might be economic, might be ambition. They might even be spite or jealousy.
However the lesson is irrefutable: Something about Madrid, something about the Champions League acts like that bell to Pavlov's dogs. It rings and they get hungry, they strain at their leashes. You'd better get out of the way.
Zidane's World, European and Spanish champions face a test of fire this week. There's no Karim Benzema, no Marcelo. Kroos is touch-and-go for fitness, Ronaldo is struggling for goals; critics are on their case.
They've never won in Dortmund's back yard yet, this time, I think they will. Because for all the backstories, for all the human drama, for all the motives and the motivation, these are the burdens that playing for one of the handful of truly mega clubs brings.
My guess is that Zidane and co will handle the emotion, handle the challenge just that little bit better than Dortmund and rise to the moment.
I could be wrong but, honestly now, aren't you just desperate to know how the drama plays out?
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.