Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, left, fought for the ball with Bayern’s Holger Badstuber during a matchup of the eventual Champions League finalists in a German league game in December. (Lennart Preiss/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Let’s be honest. Most of us do not watch German league soccer on a regular basis. But clearly we should. Based on this season’s UEFA Champions League, it is where the best European soccer is being played. Not in England, not in Spain and not in Italy.
German soccer is no longer under the radar — it is about to be showcased in all its glory under the beaming floodlights of London’s Wembley Stadium in Saturday’s Champions League final.
Between them, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have dominated German soccer in recent years.
They have hogged the Bundesliga title, both winning it twice in the last four seasons. Simultaneously, Bayern have made it all the way to the Champions League final in three of those four years, only to stumble at the last hurdle.
By the law of averages this should be Bayern’s year — third time lucky and all that. In 2010 they ran into Inter at its height under the management of Jose Mourinho. Twelve months ago Bayern survived a penalty shootout to dispose of Real Madrid, only to lose the final against Chelsea on its own pitch in similar heartbreaking fashion.
But soccer doesn’t work like that. It is a cruel game which doesn’t hand out trophies for hard work or hard-luck stories. It doesn’t always reward the better team on the day. In the tension-filled atmosphere of occasions such as this, one lapse in concentration can be the difference between elation and desolation.
If part of winning is learning the lessons of losing, Bayern should be experts. Certainly there has been no Champions League hangover this season — quite the reverse in fact. Munich romped to the German league title by a huge margin and has played virtually flawless football against all comers on the international stage.
Before blitzing Barcelona they beat up the Old Lady of Turin. Neither Juventus nor Barca managed to score a single goal against the German giants in 360 minutes of high-stakes soccer. Bayern appears to have come full circle from the despair of watching glory snatched away just a year ago.
But this first all-German Champions League final is not a foregone conclusion. Bayern will start as slight favourites but Dortmund is not in England to sightsee or make up the numbers. Jurgen Klopp’s team know everything about their familiar foe and will have planned accordingly.
Bayern better beware. A week before last season’s Champions League final, Munich faced Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal (German Cup final). On neutral territory in Berlin, Dortmund delivered a knockout blow, winning 5-2, thanks in large part to a hat trick from Robert Lewandowski. More recently, the Polish striker scored four goals against Real Madrid to effectively book Dortmund’s Wembley excursion.
Dortmund is not a one-man team. Lewandowski’s presence is pivotal of course, but there is more than one string to this team’s bow. Mario Gotze’s enforced injury absence, ahead of his multi-million dollar move to Munich, is a major setback, but Marco Reus has enjoyed a productive first season back with his hometown club.
We may have to prepare for the long haul. The most recent league meetings between Bayern and Dortmund suggest extra time is a distinct possibility. Both games ended in inconclusive 1-1 ties. By definition the Champions League must have a champion, so a stalemate after 90 minutes this time will just not do.
Bayern Munich has the pedigree and the experience to clinch the title for the first time since 2001. Borussia Dortmund has the confidence and the determination to emulate the glory days of the 90s.
For those drooling over the tasty prospect of an all-Spanish showpiece between Barcelona and Real Madrid, sorry, the menu has changed. Forget the paella. Break out the bratwurst.
International – Club Friendlies
FT Manchester City 4 – 3 Chelsea
Italy – Serie C Super Cup
FT Trapani 2 – 2 Avellino
Germany – Bundesliga Promotion/Rel.
FT Hoffenheim 3 – 1 Kaiserslautern