It is fitting that in the year the Bundesliga celebrates 50 years of its founding, it will be an all-German encounter in the final of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in 12 years. It’s a classic David versus Goliath. Though in all fairness, Borussia Dortmund are hardly the minnows of the football world. But when compared to the money and might of the club they rightly call FC Hollywood, Jurgen Klopp’s outfit are definitely the under-dogs. A fact and challenge the ever-smiling, intelligent and charming German acknowledges and relishes.
Yet there is no doubt that his boys in black and yellow are chasing the Hollywood dream, the fairytale end to a memorable Champions League campaign of a team whose entire squad costs far less than a certain Fernando Torres. Having defeated the likes of Manchester City, Ajax, Malaga, Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid, Klopp’s boys have gone from strength to strength. Not, however, without that bit of luck that every successful team will attest to needing if you are to have that one final push (Particularly in their Malaga match). In this era of excessive spending, Russian oligarchs and sugar daddies from the Middle East, Borussia Dortmund’s story has been a breath of fresh air.
On the verge of bankruptcy less than a decade ago, the club underwent a very rocky period that saw Tomas Rosicky, among others leave to make the finances solvent. In 2008, Dortmund took aboard a young Jurgen Klopp from Mainz. Their fortunes changed through hard work, a lot of patience for their project to take root and the changes Klopp implemented based on his insightful understanding of the game. With a focus on youth and a sustainable financial model that still allows them to play an attractive, successful brand of football, Die Borussen are certainly every neutral and everyman’s favourite to clinch a historic trophy at Wembley at the end of the month. And the steep growth-rate in their own fan-base (almost 100,000 members compared with 8,000 around ten years ago) points to a long-term stability than merely a flash in the proverbial football pan.
But the Bayern Munich story is no less compelling. A penalty shoot-out heartbreak last May in the Champions League final against Chelsea dashed their hopes of clinching the trophy at their home ground. But the team has bounced back stronger than ever this season winning the Bundesliga with 6 games left (the fastest in German footballing history) following their 1-0 win at Eintracht Frankfurt on April 6. Second placed Dortmund are 20 points behind, and Bayern have also already secured their place in the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) final versus VfB Stuttgart on June 1.
The last time they lifted the European Cup was back in 2001 after a penalty shoot-out victory against Valencia. Bayern have never achieved a treble and this historic landmark will most definitely be in their sights when they take the field on May 25 and hope to erase not only last season’s memories but also those from the 2010 Champions League final when they lost 0-2 to Mourinho’s Inter Milan. It would cap off a fine season and offer a fitting goodbye to manager Jupp Heyneckes who will be replaced by none other than Pep Guardiola from next season.
“It is not a secret that I am someone that has lived everything in football as a player and a coach and I was very disappointed after the final last season … But the very next day we began planning the next season, planning the squad and speaking with the players.” (Jupp Heyneckes)
The team, with a few additions of depth in the summer and a new, tougher mentality have been virtually unstoppable, and at times frankly, scary with their speed, power and tenacity. It’s a never-say-die attitude that speaks of a burning desire to win that does land them the ‘favourites’ tag. Not even the recent tax-evasion scandal that erupted around club president Oli Hoeness has put a dent in Bayern’s focus. A large part of this has been their ability to put egos and individual glory aside for team unity and the bigger picture. Yes they have the huge financial backing and pull but if you have seen any of their games this season, small or big, you will see their desire to work for each other, for the team’s benefit and to be ruthless even after the first 2 goals.
In a way this same team effort and determination can be seen in their counterparts from North Rhine-Westphalia. After back-to-back Bundesliga titles under Klopp among other trophies, it is hard to forget that the club were not always as fiscally responsible as they are now. Nor are they a ‘new’ club in terms of history and success, with Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal Cups to their name and their only Champions League in 1997 beating Juventus 3-1 in the final. Klopp reiterates their team philosophy, one that is ‘relatively easy’ and in his wry sense of humour also points out that it’s nothing new.
“We need to defend well if we are to score many goals. It is easy, the team needs to play together closely, in a very solid way … It is important to keep our discipline. If we score a goal we need to defend it, but we need to be daring. We need to score a second. That is the idea we have day by day … We’ve had this idea for a long time. It is not only my idea, it is the idea of the whole team. I haven’t invented football.”
There is a reason why the man is every neutral’s darling, and a large part of the reason why all his players and fans adore him is because he’s tried his best to embody the spirit of the city, its people and its much-lauded passionately vocal fan-base.
“And Dortmund is one of those places (where you have to conduct yourself and play football in a certain way). Here people demand that the team should play with the attributes that are closest to my heart: with a lot of feeling and with intensity until the very last minute. We want to play the kind of football people remember.”
But with this also comes the danger of losing these rising stars to clubs that can offer more money. There definitely is a strong team spirit within the squad, one that Roman Weidenfeller echoes. The 32 year old goal-keeper who has been at the Westfalenstadion since 2002 recently signed a contract extension until 2016.
“Moving to another club had never crossed my mind. What has grown and developed here at Dortmund over the past few years is a uniquely positive football story which I want to play a big part in writing in the years to come.”
However that didn’t stop Mario Goetze from agreeing to move to rivals Bayern Munich next season after the Bavarians met his 32 million pound release clause. This news broke one day before Dortmund faced Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final and though the Germans’ 4-0 victory showed no indication that it had affected them, it will have had an impact. Goetze, only 20, has come up through their youth ranks and gained even more prominence following his match-winning performances after Shinji Kagawa’s Manchester United move. With the news that Bayern are also keen to secure Dortmund’s prolific Polish forward, Robert Lewandowski, the club and Klopp will be on high-alert to keep this unit together. It would be an altogether shame if Dortmund lost its best players on the cusp of greatness, and that urgency makes a potential final win even more poetic.
Bayern will certainly feel the more confident side after a 3-0 demolition of the mighty Barcelona at Camp Nou in the second leg of their semi-final. They equalled their own biggest away win in a Champions League semi-final record (3-0 at Lyon, April 2010) and have kept a clean sheet in four consecutive CL knockout matches. Even with the hamstring tear to number 10 Toni Kroos versus Juventus, the young Thomas Mueller has seamlessly stepped in to give some of his finest career performances (notably in the semi-final first leg when he was instrumental to destroying Barcelona). This has been perfectly complemented by experienced hands like Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Mandzukic, Ribery, Gomez and the ever-deadly Robben to create a formidable unit. In contrast, Dortmund were over-shadowed for large parts of their loss at the Bernebau and it was more due to Madrid’s profligacy in front of goal and to a certain extent their tenacity to stand firm against waves of Spanish attack that they survived to win 4-2 on aggregate. However Klopp was brutally honest and matter-of-fact, saying that they would have to analyse their performance in order to learn their lessons in time for the final battle.
Both teams are familiar with the other’s style of play, tactics and players following some fierce contests over the last three seasons. With the brutal pace and efficiency of Bayern, Dortmund’s midfield will have to play an important role not only shielding their defence as much as possible, but also in breaking up play, re-distributing the ball and regaining possession quickly which has been a hallmark of their style. They recently faced off against each other in a bad-tempered 1-1 draw (Kevin Grosskreutz for Dortmund and Mario Gomez for Bayern) in the Bundesliga that clearly showed both team’s desire to go for the jugular.
The pivot/fulcrum of Sven Bender and Ikay Gundogan in particular will have to be as excellent both defensively and offensively as they were at home against Madrid, while the likes of Grosskreutz (playing as a makeshift winger on account of Gotze’s injury) RB Piszczek, Hummels, Subotic and particularly left-back Schmelzer (who is the weakest link in their back-four) have an uphill task dealing with the recently dangerous ‘Robbery’ combo. With Kroos still out, Mueller will be expected to play in the same central position with Robben switching to the right flank, ready for rampaging runs, exchanges with Mueller/Schweinsteiger and on the lookout for a half-chance to get the ball on his lethal left foot. This is not to say that Borussia Dortmund don’t possess their own dangers and talents, but with Goetze’s hamstring injury potentially putting him on the sidelines (somewhat conveniently so that he won’t have to face-off against his new employers), Klopp will need his entire team, and particularly Reus and Lewandowski to be on top form. Dortmund are an equally efficient entity focusing on moving the ball around and up the field as quickly as possible, and unlike Barca their brand of youthful, exuberant football could prove a handful for Dante and co.
Der Klassiker has all the pundits, players and fans alike salivating at the prospect of some high quality, high tempo all-round football between two exceptional teams and managers who equally deserve the prize. It would very well end up being a cagey, tactical affair though this writer hopes not for the pure love of the game. There has also been much talk about the rise of a German era of dominance. Whether that’s true or simply a “Momentaufnahme” (a fleeting snapshot of a moment in time) remains to be seen but that hardly matters when the two teams face off against each other at Wembley on May 25, 2013. One thing is certain whatever the result. Every true fan of the game will applaud the winner for a deserved trophy.