Cologne - Strictly in terms of the league standings, Bayer 04 Leverkusen's home meeting with Borussia Dortmund can scarcely be classified as the big game of Matchday 18 – not least given that the actual top two go head-to-head on Friday evening. There is, however, a strong case to be argued that Saturday's late kick-off is a clash of equal significance, and not only for the two sides involved.
Spirits high after winter training camp
Leverkusen are third in the table, six points behind Wolfsburg but just one clear of a trio of clubs hot on their heels. In the race for a coveted automatic UEFA Champions League place, every slip-up presents a golden opportunity for others to exploit. It is a contest Dortmund were fully expected to be in the thick of as the season got underway, but things have unfolded very differently so far for the side who have been Bayern's undisputed number one domestic rivals over the past four years.
Far from giving the men from Munich a run for their money in their latest title defence, BVB only head into 2015 one place above bottom-club SC Freiburg by virtue of having scored one more goal. As far as the half-term report goes, 'unsatisfactory' does not cover it. Struggling from one defeat to the next at the tail-end of last year, Dortmund repeatedly vowed that the next game would, indeed had to, finally mark the turning point.
But it never did, a couple of false starts notwithstanding, and the 2011 and 2012 German champions staggered into the winter break as the only side in the division with a loss column running into double figures – ten defeats in their opening 17 games. Now, with a new year, a shrinking injury list, a fresh new face and a solid week-and-a-bit of productive training in Spanish La Manga behind them, die Schwarz-Gelben are at a definitively vital juncture. A good performance, and above all result, at Leverkusen will further underpin the current positive vibe. Should they lose, however, that newfound optimism would be sorely tested at the first hurdle.
On the face of it, a lot of factors speak in Dortmund's favour. Perhaps the single most significant piece of personnel news is the return of Marco Reus from the last of three injuries in what was a miserable latter half of 2014 for Borussia's standout attacking player. As an added bonus, Reus wasted no time striking up a promising understanding with new signing Kevin Kampl, laying on the only goal of the game for the Slovenia international in a friendly win against FC Utrecht.
Fresh forward options for Klopp
That was one of three successive single-goal, clean-sheet victories for a side whose defence was all too often caught woefully napping over the first half of the campaign. Mats Hummels is another key BVB performer blighted by a string of recent injury problems, which palpably affected his normally assured form at the heart of defence. While careful not to overstate the importance of results in training camp tests, the skipper did admit that in terms of his fitness he now feels “exponentially better than in the earlier part of the season.”
Further up the pitch, Dortmund's prospects of getting off to the required flier at Leverkusen have been given a further boost by the respective exits of Japan from the 2015 AFC Asian Cup and Gabon from its African equivalent – freeing up Shinji Kagawa and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for an early return to club duty. Back in La Manga, head coach Jürgen Klopp was meanwhile sufficiently satisfied with the progress made, reiterating nonetheless that, “I need to do more, everyone needs to do more.”
One step at a time
Nobody is talking about renewed Champions League qualification at Dortmund right now, hardly surprising given their current situation. That said, the Bundesliga behind Bayern is such a level playing field that victory at the BayArena – where they are incidentally unbeaten in their last seven outings – would bring second-bottom BVB back to within ten points of their third-place hosts.
Easier said than done, of course, against a Bayer side with their own Champions League agenda and who came away from the Signal Iduna Park with a 2-0 win on Matchday 1. Karim Bellarabi set them on the way with his historic nine-second opener and any repeat of those kind of attacking fireworks on Leverkusen's part will certainly help gauge how far the default hunger for victory has returned in place of the pervasive fear of losing again in the Dortmund camp. “We've got a job to do,” Klopp summarised, “and 17 games to do it in.” As it stands, that job is simply to stay afloat in the Bundesliga. The right result on Saturday could yet be the first step on a more ambitious path.