Bayern-Dortmund isn’t Bundesliga title decider, but it’s close

ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae is ensconced in Germany for this week’s showdown between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund on ABC and ESPN+ (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET). While it’s too early for a title decider, this edition of “der Klassiker” has the feel of the biggest head-to-head Bundesliga confrontation for many years, and the Thomas Tuchel factor only adds to the drama.

One way or the other, the international break of March 2023 will forever be recorded in the annals of Bayern history. We just don’t how it will be written.

Will ousting Julian Nagelsmann to bring in Thomas Tuchel prove a masterstroke in saving a stuttering, but not directionless, season from collapse? Or, alternatively, will it be seen as a hasty and expensive moment of panic by a skittish set of decision-makers in Munich?

The prevalent view at this moment among the public reflects the latter. To jettison “long-term project” coach Nagelsmann at a colossal cost, just because Bayern are under more pressure than anticipated and Tuchel happens to be available, seems illogical and shortsighted to the average fan.

Absolutely no one was predicting this turn of events when some of us — with the Bundesliga on pause — took what we thought was a timely week off to recharge.

Immediately before the Nagelsmann-out-Tuchel-in whirlwind, I tweeted something that seemed to me entirely uncontroversial, proclaiming that the Bundesliga is — from top to bottom — the most exciting top league in Europe this season. I stand by those words, although they seemed to draw the ire of some who probably would tell you the Premier League is always the most gripping league anyway, simply because … well, it’s the “best league in the world.”

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– Bayern vs. Dortmund: Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, ABC and ESPN+

I challenge anyone to find a more engrossing high-profile race anywhere than the fascinating Dortmund-Bayern seesaw, the sides a mere one point apart and ready to lock horns at the Allianz Arena before 75,000 fans in a game that will serve as more than a weather vane in this most tempestuous of Bundesliga seasons.

A Dortmund lead going into the international break seemed improbable after the Schwarzgelben twice surrendered the advantage in a 2-2 derby draw with Ruhr rivals Schalke 04 on March 11, but BVB’s subsequent slick 6-1 dismantling of FC Cologne, a performance replete with tidy combinations and precise finishing, sent a message to the Rekordmeister, who visited Bayer Leverkusen the following day.

Bayern took the lead through Joshua Kimmich, but what happened next falls in the category of things we never thought we’d see on a football pitch. Twice Leverkusen’s Amine Adli was booked for diving by referee Tobias Stieler, but in each case the card was rescinded and a penalty awarded after an on-pitch VAR review. Exequiel Palacios beat Yann Sommer both times from the spot to ensure that Bayern are in the unfamiliar position of second place this late in the season.

Borussia Dortmund’s form since the league returned in January has been nothing short of remarkable. Edin Terzic’s team has claimed 28 points out of a possible 30, while Bayern in that same timeframe have gathered only 18. It’s spun the title race completely, from Dortmund being nine points behind in the depths of winter to a one-point advantage entering the Endspurt (“the final phase”).

How have they done it? There has been good luck along the way, such as in the wild 4-3 win against FC Augsburg and the excruciating second half BVB suffered through before overcoming RB Leipzig 2-1. Crucially, though, it hasn’t always been about one or two players, but instead different characters emerging, like Emre Can and Karim Adeyemi — before his injury — who were previously underperforming.

Nico Schlotterbeck, with his heart-on-sleeve style, has become a firm favourite in a city that appreciates grit and passion. His central defensive partnership with former Bayern man Niklas Sule has given Dortmund a firm base to build on while keeping Mats Hummels mostly on the sidelines.

We must mention Julian Brandt, who — prior to leaving the round-of-16 second leg against Chelsea in the Champions League due to a muscular problem — has put together his purest run of form since joining from Leverkusen in 2019. Even his defensive work is massively improved. At the time of writing, BVB are hopeful Brandt can play some part on Saturday.

Dortmund’s gem remains captain Marco Reus, a quiet leader compared to other skippers, but an exquisite and classy footballer who was at his best last time out against Cologne. Talk of local boy Reus leaving in the summer when his contract expires has evaporated.

Jude Bellingham is the young star who, on the other hand, likely will leave the club for colossal money at the end of the campaign. While there aren’t many better all-around midfield players in world football, BVB have even been able to afford a slight Formtief (form dip) from the England international recently.

Every week seems to propel a different player to the forefront, from the tigerish and versatile full-back Julian Ryerson, signed in January from Union Berlin, to Can, to Adeyemi, to Sebastien Haller, whose successful battle against cancer has won him many admirers.

Even United States international Giovanni Reyna, who has dropped down the Dortmund pecking order, had his special super-sub moments against Augsburg and Mainz. Alas, he fluffed his lines when handed a start against Werder Bremen, and when others around you are hitting much higher peaks in form, you’re simply not going to get a first-team spot. That’s life in a meritocracy.

Over the past two games, Raphael Guerreiro has gone from “likely to leave the club with his contract up this summer” to a newfound source of industry and wizardry in the midfield. Sporting chief Sebastian Kehl has made a point of saying they are still in talks with the Portugal international regarding the future.

In goalkeeper Gregor Kobel, they have the Bundesliga’s best this term, although he has been injured for several weeks. Alex Meyer is a capable deputy, but not of the same quality.

For all of this we must praise Terzic, a Dortmund fan to the core who grew up in Menden in the Sauerland just a short drive from the city. This is his second spell in charge and in his previous stint, he guided BVB to 2021 DFB-Pokal success, outdoing Nagelsmann, the then coach of Leipzig, in the final.

Since the days of Jurgen Klopp, the last Dortmund trainer to win the Meisterschale, they’ve struggled to find a coach who fits the emotional personality of the club and its wider community — and that includes Terzic’s opposite number on Saturday, Tuchel. That’s not to say Terzic is a Klopp clone, but he identifies with and indeed shares the club’s heartbeat in a way his immediate predecessors haven’t.

So, will Dortmund finally outdo Bayern in a big game after a run of eight Bundesliga matches without a win (seven of them defeats) against them? You can make a case for it, but it would be the height of folly to think Bayern, with a superb squad, will simply succumb to a motivated BVB and the magnitude of the occasion. If anything, they’re rarely more dangerous than immediately after a slip-up. League defeats at Augsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach this season have been followed by resounding victories over Leverkusen and Union.

Some might see parallels between Tuchel’s Bayern debut and Hansi Flick’s first Bundesliga game in charge back in November 2019, when Dortmund were ruthlessly put to the sword and the 4-0 margin didn’t flatter Bayern one bit, but there are question marks.

Sommer is a top-notch keeper, but we haven’t yet seen the Switzerland No. 1 at his most comfortable since moving from Gladbach in January. Part of that can be attributed to having to adapt to defenders more used to Manuel Neuer’s “playmaking” style of goalkeeping.

Dayot Upamecano is talented but still error0prone, although Benjamin Pavard and Matthijs de Ligt have made positive strides in recent weeks. Joao Cancelo hasn’t quite fired yet in his four league starts and two substitute appearances, while Canada’s Alphonso Davies has offered a mixed bag this year.

The players who have suffered the biggest form dips and come in for most media scrutiny have been Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry, and it’s hard to imagine them seeing the coaching change as anything but a positive. Kingsley Coman, on the other hand, has excelled when picked, but Nagelsmann often deployed him as a substitute. Sadio Mane is not long back from more than three months on the sidelines due to a knee injury and failed to impress in his 45 minutes against Leverkusen.

So where are the other positives? Well, there’s the often unstoppable Jamal Musiala, but he was withdrawn from the Germany squad because of a hamstring muscle fibre injury. His absence would represent a significant blow to Bayern as a team.

It would, however, give Thomas Muller the starting guarantee he didn’t always enjoy under Nagelsmann. Again it’s tempting to think back to Flick’s days at the helm and how he quickly made Muller a key building block again after he had fallen out of favour under Niko Kovac. Tuchel knows he must give careful thought to how to deploy a German football legend.

One player Tuchel has enjoyed a successful collaboration with twice before is Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, at Mainz and then again at Paris Saint-Germain. The Cameroon international missed the Leverkusen trip and pulled out of his country’s matches in this window due to back problems.

Kimmich was regarded as Nagelsmann’s extended arm on the pitch, and it’s clear the decision last week has come as a jolt to Bayern’s midfield fulcrum and close friend Leon Goretzka, both of whom will have key roles to play on Saturday for a new coach up against Bellingham, Can & Co.

I’ve seen many attempts at pigeonholing Tuchel. Those who followed him at Chelsea, for example, might see him as cautious and obdurate. However, here in Germany, his history has been much more about adapting to the players available to him rather than imposing a style. In fact, latterly in Dortmund, there was mild criticism that Tuchel’s tactics changed too much from game to game. To me, he is the ultimate pragmatist.

Tuchel coached Dortmund to the 2017 DFB-Pokal shortly after the attack on the team bus en route to the Champions League quarterfinal against AS Monaco. Having been at both legs commentating and observing Tuchel throughout, it appeared to me that failure by UEFA allied with inertia from club bosses, regarding a necessary recovery period after a traumatic experience for all concerned, cemented his fate and it was time for him to move on.

Now his job is to stop his old club from stealing the limelight away from his new team, with barely any time to coherently get his message across.

I can’t wait for Saturday, and hope you’ll clear the decks and join us for live coverage. The latest Bayern-Dortmund instalment could be epic.

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