Borussia Dortmund deserve an immense amount of credit for still being in touch with league leaders Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga.
Because Pep Guardiola’s swashbuckling side have been awesome in 2015-16, the champions have suffocated opposition teams with a constricting cocktail of pressing and possession, surging to the summit of the table, totting up an obscene tally of goals and keeping the defensive door tightly bolted.
Bayern typically have a monopoly on matches in the Bundesliga. They dominate in all aspects of their play and according to a remarkable statistic doing the rounds back in November, the Bavarians would still be top of the table if every shot on target was a goal, which is testament to the longstanding stranglehold they’ve had this term.
Yet Dortmund have clung on gamely at the top of the table and to even sit in the jet stream of juggernaut of a team, you need to be a pretty special outfit. And, quite remarkably, Thomas Tuchel’s swaggering Schwarzgelben have the chance to heap very real pressure on Bayern on Saturday when they host the champions in Der Klassiker at the Westfalenstadion (live in the USA on FX at 12:30pm ET).
Dortmund do so knowing that after a pulsating round of midweek fixtures, they can move to within two points of their great rivals with a victory.
Bayern’s immaculate domestic home record was ended at the hands of a diligent Mainz 05 side on Wednesday as they fell to a 2-1 defeat—just the fourth league game this season in which they haven’t won— while BVB, despite resting several key players with this weekend’s showdown in mind, went to Darmstadt and triumphed 2-0.
It was Dortmund’s ninth win in 11 games, including fine wins away at Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach. And given the standards which Bayern have continued to set, to put together such a sequence of results is testament to the fortitude of this team, who were 11 points behind the champions after their win last Saturday.
And when you delve into how Dortmund have got themselves into this increasingly intriguing position, it makes their efforts all the more impressive.
This is Tuchel’s first season in charge of BVB, don’t forget. Stepping up from a side like Mainz into a club where expectations are significantly heightened can inhibit a coach seeking to implement his principles, especially when replacing a figure as momentous as the adored Jurgen Klopp.
But Tuchel has been emboldened by the expectations and while he’s not made seismic strides away from the previous regime, he has added some stardust to this outfit. Indeed, Dortmund have not only now scored more goals than Saturday’s opponents in the Bundesliga, but in all competitions this term they’ve bagged a staggering 103 in 40 matches.
This was a team which looked on its knees at times last term, don’t forget, loitering around the relegation zone for much of the campaign before a late flourish spurred the blushes of Klopp.
While many believed this was a side coming to the end of a cycle, in terms of personnel, little has changed under Tuchel. What he has done so impressively is draw more from players who weren’t quite fulfilling their potential at the Westfalenstadion.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is perhaps the most striking example. Used as an auxiliary wide forward during the early days of his Dortmund career before Klopp gave him a run through the middle late last term, the Gabon international has added a ruthlessness in the final third to complement his staggering dynamism; he has 22 goals in 23 league appearances.
Ilkay Gundogan has rediscovered his best again too, having been making steady progress since his return from a long injury layoff. His ability to thrive when the game is stretched, or when Dortmund come against bunkered opposition, has been key to the team’s versatility.
While Henrikh Mkhitaryan, written off and mocked by many last term after some horrid form, has arguably been Dortmund’s player of the year, floating infield from the flanks and wreaking havoc in pockets of space. The Armenian has dazzled and in 37 matches this season, has 19 goals and 19 assists.
The panache with which this team has played with lately, coupled with the stellar individual performances, has lead to a swell of hope amongst Schwarzgelben supporters that this team can pull off what would be an incredible title win.
Of course, Bayern are still in the driving seat, with Dortmund still trailing by two points even if they do topple the champions. And let’s not forget, the Bavarians were 5-1 winners in the reverse fixture earlier this term.
Guardiola’s side did fade at this stage last season, though—four losses from their last eight matches last term is a poor return by their own high standards—and will head to the Ruhr region with a Jerome Boateng-less defence that’ll be troubled by the aforementioned attacking talent at Tuchel’s disposal.
On the cusp of this Klassiker showdown, the onus seems very much on the hosts too, who have won 16 of their 18 matches on home soil this term. Not only do they possess some of the form players in the division, but in men like Mats Hummels, Lukasz Piszczek and Sven Bender, title-winners who have been in this scenario previously.
A loss here wouldn’t necessarily render this campaign a failure for Dortmund, who, as noted, have done tremendously to keep track with an outfit who are more force of nature than football team. Yet victory here would rekindle the fire in a title race many considered to be long extinguished and potentially pave the way for one of the most memorable successes in the club’s history.
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