The 94th Revierderby in Bundesliga history takes place at the Signal Iduna Park on Saturday, April 27 (kick-off: 3.30pm CEST/2.30pm BST/9.30am ET), with Borussia Dortmund welcoming Gelsenkirchen neighbours Schalke to their famous stadium.
With Dortmund in search of a first league title since 2012 and Schalke desperate to secure their own safety in the Bundesliga this season, the stakes are high in a fixture already swollen with risk even without the added incentive of a title race and relegation battle.
With so much to gain and so much to lose, bundesliga.com looks at the high rollers who will need their poker faces at the ready come Matchday 31.
Watch: Weston McKennie on his first Revierderby loss
Since making the move to BVB in the summer, Witsel has become an integral part of coach Lucien Favre’s Black and Yellow revolution. “He shows the necessary composure, moves well, does the simple things,” is Favre’s layman term description of the Swiss tactician’s Belgian engine room.
Having missed just one Bundesliga game this season, it’s hard to think of a Dortmund midfield without Witsel at its base and Thomas Delaney for company, such has been the ease in which the 30-year-old has slotted into his new surroundings. Witsel has brought stability to BVB and found consistency as the foundation that allows the likes of Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus and Mario Götze to shine from ahead of their ball-winning (Witsel has won a team-high 263 duels) pass master (and has a team-high 94 per cent pass completion rate).
"If I can’t play football, sometimes I get a bit down because I don’t know what I should do. Sometimes I’m in a bad mood.” McKennie's mood has been shared by everyone else at Schalke and both can only dream of such consistency in both playing time and position. The versatile American has been desperately unlucky with injuries this campaign, meaning he has managed to feature in six consecutive matches only twice.
Watch: How Witsel makes Dortmund tick
Those runs have coincided with Schalke’s best form, too; Matchday 6-11 (W3, D1, L2) and Matchday 13-18 (W2, D2, L2). In fact, Schalke have picked up 0.88 points per game (W2, D1, L5) without McKennie in their matchday squad, compared to 0.95 (W5, D4 L11) with the 20-year-old at their disposal.
Now back up and running after his latest injury setback, McKennie will hope to be deployed from his favoured No.10 role where the USA international would go directly up against Witsel. If one can nullify the other, it will go a long way to deciding this derby in their team’s favour.
Marco Reus vs. Omar Mascarell
Much like the battle above, these two men should see a great deal of each other on Matchday 31. Dortmund captain Reus has been in stunning form this campaign, floating behind and bursting beyond Götze and Paco Alcacer as a perfect supporting act to Dortmund’s leading line. The result has been a third-best goal scoring return (15) of the 29-year-old’s Bundesliga career and a further six assists for his teammates to feast upon.
Reus has been every bit Dortmund’s talisman this season, with the new father leading from the front in pursuit of a first Bundesliga winners medal. His movement, especially alongside such a fluid, dynamic front line, will take near constant monitoring and will ensure that Mascarell is in for a busy day at the office.
The Spanish midfielder has emerged as a key figure in Schalke’s midfield over recent weeks, featuring in six of Schalke’s last nine games - missing two of those through injury - and starting five. Compare that to just four appearances in the 20 previous games - with two starts - and you can see how the former Real Madrid man has forced himself into the Royal Blues’ first-team reckoning under Huub Stevens.
“Every coach has a different strategy. Stevens and his coaching team have placed a lot of value on the team working hard as well as having fun on the pitch,” Mascarell previously explained to schalke04.com and clearly his hard work is paying off. Combative, full of running and industry, Mascarell will need to be at his very best up against Reus and will be tasked with closing down the grey area between defence and midfield that Dortmund so love to exploit.
Jadon Sancho vs. Bastian Oczipka
One of those space invaders is Sancho, the England international becoming a constant menace across the Dortmund front line all season. He proved so in Dortmund’s 2-1 win over Schalke earlier in the season, Sancho’s charged winning goal coming after switching to the left wing, cutting in behind the Schalke defence and curling into the far corner. It was as dramatic a goal as it was emotional for Sancho, who later dedicated the winner to his late grandmother, saying; “The goal means everything to my family.”
Watch: Sancho hits Revierderby winner
Positionally, the 19-year-old will largely operate from the right flank, where the majority of his league-leading 13 assists and further 10 goals have originated from. For large parts, this will put Sancho directly up against Oczipka who, in that Revierderby fixture in December, had managed to thwart Sancho enough that the young winger sought opportunity on the other side.
Tactically, both Stevens and Domenico Tedesco before him, have preferred three centre-backs and four across the midfield this season but Dortmund’s attacking threat may see Schalke move to a back-four. In either case, Oczipka will be on the left of either a four-man defence or four-man midfield and will be tasked with keeping Sancho as quiet as possible. It will be no easy task but if he can manage to keep Sancho at arm’s length while also providing an attacking outlet himself, Schalke will be in a good position to secure Revierderby spoils.
Manuel Akanji vs. Breel Embolo
It is safe to say these two Switzerland teammates know each other extremely well. Roomies on international duty, Akanji even sometimes babysits for Embolo. "The kid recognises Manu,” the Schalke forward explained to SRF. “I'm glad Akanji is close to me. I would like to have him at my club. With the national team we are always together in the room.”
But there will be no time for friendship as the mercury rises and the Revierderby cauldron reaches boiling point come kick-off in what will be the first Bundesliga meeting between these two buddies. Both keenly remember their first professional face-to-face for very different reasons. "When I was at Winterthur, we played a cup game against Basel in 2014 and he mercilessly showed me just how much work I needed to do to improve,” said Akanji whose side were on the wrong end of a 4-0 defeat to Basel, instigated by Embolo’s hat-trick that day.
Akanji will be desperate to avoid a repeat of that outcome five years ago, Embolo equally keen for a repeat with these two fighting for extra bragging rights in a derby already steeped in them. With four clean sheets to Akanji’s name and four goals to Embolo’s, both will be hoping to improve on those records at the other’s expense.
Roman Bürki vs. Alex Nübel
Bürki has emerged as one of Dortmund’s most important figures in recent weeks, especially in Matchday 29’s 2-1 win over Mainz where the 28-year-old put in a Man of the Match performance to help BVB bounce back from Der Klassiker defeat at their first attempt. “As a goalkeeper, it feels good when you perform well and help your team win the match,” said Bürki in typical understatement, having saved nine Mainz shots on target and eight of them in the second-half alone.
The Swiss stopper has grown as the season has gone on and should he keep Dortmund’s remaining opponents at bay, Bürki will have had a huge say in whether his side become champions. Nübel has found himself in a similar situation at the other end of the table and has thrived since Tedesco made the 22-year-old Schalke's No.1 ahead of Ralf Fährmann, which Stevens has continued.
Like Bürki against Mainz, Nübel stood up to the plate when his side needed him the most with a stunning performance in Schalke’s 1-0 victory over Hannover on Matchday 27, as well as saving a penalty in the 1-1 draw with Nuremberg on Matchday 29; results that may prove vital in keeping Schalke out of the relegation play-off spot at the end of the season. “Nübel was phenomenal in goal,” said Stevens, while opposite number Thomas Doll admitted, “Nübel made a number of quality saves.”
Similar performances when they both meet will be needed to deny two quality attacks. Who knows, it may even throw up the first goalless Revierderby since the stalemate at Signal Iduna Park back in October, 2016.