Bayern Munich may have won the Bundesliga title in record quick time, but an emphatic dethroning as European champions means that, rightly or wrongly, Saturday’s DFB-Pokal Final against their greatest domestic rivals holds huge importance for how their season will be viewed.
Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge was going as smoothly as could have been imagined up to the point that Bayern claimed their second successive league crown in late March. At that stage they had preposterously dropped just four points in the Bundesliga. But since their title was confirmed the intensity has dipped and questions have been asked. In the 10 games following the victory over Hertha Berlin that sealed the title, Bayern lost as many as they won. While their league defeats could be excused, the two losses to Real Madrid, the second a 4-0 home demolition, destroyed their hopes of becoming the first team to win back-to-back Champions Leagues.
Much of the recriminations that followed were ridiculously overblown. Suddenly, it was Guardiola’s whole philosophy that was the problem, despite all the success it had brought both this season and previously with Barcelona. Many claimed that the team was better under his treble-winning predecessor Jupp Heynckes, almost as if the veteran coach was assured to do something no other manager had done and win successive Champions Leagues if he had stayed on. Like a deceased artist, perhaps the best thing Heynckes ever did for his reputation was retiring.
But, while such claims can be easily dismissed, it cannot be denied that there is a danger of Bayern’s season petering out and a flat feeling being allowed to carry into the summer. Success can be quickly forgotten and thus another defeat against Borussia Dortmund would see questions linger. There is no suggestion that those in charge at Bayern are in anyway disgruntled with their coach. Yet Guardiola has made comments hinting that he has been affected by the criticism and seeks reassurances the club believe in the changes he has made, chiefly in molding Bayern into a possession-centric outfit.
Key man Franck Ribery has even spoken out this week, stating his unhappiness with Guardiola’s policy of frequent rotation. It is not ideal buildup to the final match of Bayern’s season, although the Frenchman is likely to start from the bench on Saturday as he recovers from a back injury. Bayern have also been rocked by the news this week that Thiago Alcantara, who was just returning to fitness, will miss 11 weeks with a knee ligament injury.
Bayern clearly have the players to cope with those injuries, but they will need to be at their best against a Dortmund side that, while finishing 19 points behind in the Bundesliga, have still caused the champions problems this season. Guardiola’s first match in charge was a 4-2 defeat to Dortmund in the German Super Cup as the quick transition play of Jurgen Klopp’s side caught Bayern all at sea defensively. While Bayern got their revenge with a 3-0 win in November, it was a similar story when Dortmund trounced Bayern 3-0 at the Allianz Arena a month ago as part of Bayern’s post-title-winning slump.
Bayern defender Dante has been among those to claim that his side’s focus around that defeat was taken by their Champions League campaign, but there are evidently more fundamental issues that make Dortmund a difficult matchup for the champions. Arsenal, Manchester and Real Madrid all, to varying degrees, demonstrated Bayern’s vulnerability on to quick attacks in the Champions League knockout stages
There are clearly differences between Madrid and Dortmund. Notably, Madrid have arguably the best counter-attacking players in the world. Dortmund’s approach, meanwhile, is counter-pressing rather than Madrid’s strategy in the semifinal which was to sit deep and counter attack. Dortmund will attempt to win the ball back quicker and strike but the high intensity, high tempo play that so disturbs Bayern will be the same.
Bayern frequently utilize their two full-backs, especially if Philip Lahm is one of them, as added midfielders. While it gives Guardiola’s side the extra men to further dominate the midfield, it undeniably leaves them vulnerable and the weakest area of their team -- their central defense -- isolated, if the opposition can win the ball back and quickly find the holes before Bayern can recover.
It was quick attacks that led to all three of Dortmund’s goals against Bayern in April, with the second from Marco Reus coming from a Bayern corner. That win came in the midst of Dortmund’s strong finish to the season that has seen them win seven and draw one of their last eight games. It is no surprise that the return to form after a disappointing season overall has come with an easing of their desperate injury crisis that has plagued them throughout the campaign. Their players looked jaded , but, despite still being far from full strength, it is now they who appear to have the momentum, despite Bayern winning their last five Bundesliga encounters.
Bayern will, of course, dominate possession in Berlin, but Dortmund will surely have chances. The key for Dortmund is to capitalize on their opportunities. They failed to do so in the 3-0 defeat to Bayern earlier in the campaign and did likewise to fall short of a famous comeback in their Champions League quarterfinal with Real Madrid. The big unanswered question is whether the Bundesliga’s leading marksman Robert Lewandowski will start for Dortmund against the club he will officially join in just a few weeks’ time. The prolific Pole started on the bench when the sides last met. Crucially, the doubts about the participation of the equally influential Reus, who was forced off with a foot injury in the 4-0 win over Hertha Berlin last week, look to have eased.
Like Bayern’s, Dortmund’s defense -- still without the injured Neven Subotic -- can be exploited. Before last week, Dortmund had conceded two goals in three successive matches. It would thus be a major surprise was there not to be few goals at the Olympiastadion. The identity of the winner is far harder to call and it could require extra time or even penalties to decide it, though if Bayern can match Dortmund’s intensity then they could well edge it and end the season on a high.
Prediction: Bayern Munich 2-2 Borussia Dortmund