Bayern Munich have slipped back into juggernaut mode as spring approaches, scoring 17 goals in three matches to wrestle top spot in the Bundesliga away from Borussia Dortmund for the first time since September.
Yet while they haven't quite matched Bayern's devastating performances against Borussia Mönchengladbach (5-1), Wolfsburg (6-0) and Mainz (6-0) in recent weeks, a tenacious Dortmund have got the job done against VfB Stuttgart (3-1) and Hertha Berlin (3-2), proving that they are determined to take the 2018/19 title race down to the wire.
As Germany's top two sides take a well-earned breather during the March international break, bundesliga.com explores the reasons why BVB are still in an ideal position to conquer their first league crown since 2012…
Watch: Dortmund's tactics under Lucien Favre
Never say die!
Dortmund's dramatic Matchday 26 win over Hertha was a formidable demonstration of their mental fortitude. At an Olympiastadion where only RB Leipzig and Wolfsburg had won in the Bundesliga this season (Bayern lost 2-0), Lucien Favre's charges twice came from behind to triumph 3-2, with the irrepressible Marco Reus netting an injury-time winner.
"We dominated the second half and applied a lot of pressure," Reus told BVB's official website after the game. "And winning like that in the 93rd minute gives us more self-confidence. It shows we have a strong mentality, and we can build on that. It'll be difficult to stop us with this spirit."
The Dortmund captain's late goal was the 19th that his side have scored in the final 15 minutes of matches this season, more than any other team in the Bundesliga. And they have garnered a quarter of their 60-point haul with five wins from a losing position – against Leipzig (4-1), Bayer Leverkusen (4-2), Augsburg (4-3), Bayern (3-2) and Hertha (3-2) – showing they can always turn things around when the going gets tough.
Bayern on the horizon
While Dortmund and Bayern both have their share of potential banana skins to come in the remaining two months of the campaign, the excitement surrounding the title race naturally centres on the all-important Klassiker at the Allianz Arena on Matchday 28. BVB currently trail the marauding record champions on goal difference, but victory on 6 April could swing the pendulum decisively back in their favour.
"We have to take it game by game," Axel Witsel told bundesliga.com following the hard-fought win over Stuttgart. "We have to stay tight with Bayern until we go to Munich – and after that we'll see who's top."
Dortmund can take heart from the fact that they beat Bayern in the reverse fixture, with Reus striking twice to cancel out a Robert Lewandowski brace before Paco Alcacer grabbed a 73rd-minute winner. Favre's men also boast an impressive unbeaten record against the sides currently occupying the six European places at the top of the table, having managed seven wins and a draw in eight encounters.
Watch: Reus' Klassiker impact on Matchday 11
Hard to beat
Indeed, no team in the Bundesliga has conceded fewer defeats this season than Dortmund, who have only been beaten twice in 26 outings. Bookmakers would have given good odds on both results, with Favre's side going down 2-1 to Fortuna Düsseldorf and Augsburg, respectively 16th and 15th when they toppled the then league leaders.
"Every season has its ups and downs," Thomas Delaney admitted in early March. "No team is able to perform at the same level from August to May. I can't lie: right now, things feel a little bit more difficult than they did during large parts of the first round of fixtures. But I'm not really worried, because there's one thing that sets us apart, and it's what I like most about us as a team: we always want to win. Our team has a remarkable desire to win."
Aside from Bayern, Dortmund's remaining fixtures will pit them against Düsseldorf and six teams they beat earlier in the season, in most cases by a single goal: Wolfsburg (1-0), Mainz (2-1), Freiburg (2-0), bitter rivals Schalke (2-1), Werder Bremen (2-1) and Gladbach (2-1). If a resilient BVB can continue to find themselves on the right side of those fine margins, the Meisterschale could soon be on its way back to North Rhine-Westphalia.
Star performers on song
Dortmund only won one of their five outings between early February and the start of March, with Reus a notable absentee in the draws against Hoffenheim (3-3) and Nuremberg (0-0). The 29-year-old has been a genuine talisman for BVB this term, with his 15 goals and six assists powering their title tilt. Alcacer has also chipped in with 14 goals, while teenage sensation Jadon Sancho has a Bundesliga-high 12 assists and eight goals. The Reus-and-Sancho-inspired win over Hertha has given Favre's side momentum, and they now need to recharge their batteries before gearing up for the business end of the season.
"The team absolutely wanted to win the match," reiterated sporting director Michael Zorc, after Dortmund picked up their 18th victory of the season in Berlin. "We're now heading into the final third of the season and we'll give it our all to become German champions."
The international break should give Dortmund's current absentees – Witsel (groin), Alcacer (muscle), Mario Götze (rib) and Lukasz Piszczek (heel) – time to recover, even if Maximilian Philipp (knee ligament tear) looks set to be sidelined for several more weeks. Crucially, though, even with key players missing, Dortmund's on-field leaders are ensuring that their side keep pace with Bayern at the top. The belief is there, and so too is the talent and determination; make no mistake, Dortmund have what it takes to go all the way.