Cologne - It's title time once again in the Ruhr district this weekend, as Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke 04 battle to claim their place on the regional football throne for the next half-season or so. Whatever the relative current fortunes of these two Bundesliga heavyweights in the grander scheme of things, this championship-within-a-championship operates to its own autonomous rules - not least for the massed ranks of their respective fans.
Home advantage minimal
For many diehards, the result of this one can make or break an entire season, and while the players are professionally obliged to maintain the one-game-at-a-time mantra, they will also savour the ultimate German derby for the unique occasion that it is. Saturday's Matchday 23 tussle at the will be the 86th top-flight meeting of schwarz-gelb and königsblau and statistically, the duel is finely, indeed uncannily balanced at 30 wins apiece and 25 draws.
Dortmund's home patch, with its 80 thousand-strong crowds and vast Yellow Wall covering the South Terrace, has become one of football's most intimidating venues with the club's spectacular return to the top end of the pile in recent years, at home and abroad, under Jürgen Klopp. No-one appears to have informed Schalke, though. While often struggling to keep BVB in their sights in terms of the table, the Royal Blues have nonetheless returned empty-handed from just one of the last seven short-haul trips to their arch-rivals.
On the face of it, Schalke would appear to have every chance of extending that good run in the upcoming fixture. They go into it fourth in the table, once again chasing an automatic UEFA Champions League berth in the bigger picture. Hosts Dortmund meanwhile are down in twelfth, after an abysmal opening season-half. But they go into this derby revitalised by a three-game domestic winning streak that has also seen them rack up ten goals. Schalke have left five points lying over the same time-frame, scoring just twice in the process - and, in an ultra-competitive Bundesliga, BVB have the opportunity to get back to within seven points of them with a victory.
Schalke season double up for grabs
None of which offers any meaningful clue as to how the contest will unfold on Saturday. “A derby's a different kind of game, with its own rules,” Schalke midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta reiterated in an interview on the club website, while happily noting that, “I've never lost one against Dortmund. Doesn't that have a good ring to it?” The experienced Switzerland international had to make do with a seat on the bench for the most recent instalment, when goals from Joel Matip and Revierderby debutant Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting sealed a 2-1 win for the Royal Blues.
Local hero Matip misses out this time due to injury, but Choupo-Moting is hoping the earmarked return from suspension of strike partner Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will help reignite his own scoring fortunes, as well as those of the team as a whole. The summer arrival from 1. FSV Mainz 05 could at any rate confirm after the Matchday 6 meeting at the Veltins Arena that, “the mother-of-all-derbies tag seems about right. It was certainly very loud.” Keeper Ralf Fährmann, currently recovering from a cruciate ligament injury, helped Schalke to the win on his 26th birthday and said, “I have to admit, I had tears in my eyes come the final whistle.”
Dortmund and the Reus factor
Klopp, down-to-earth as ever, acknowledged after the defeat back in September that, “This is going to be one crappy evening, no two ways about it.” This time around, he and his charges fully intend to avoid a repeat scenario. They feel the impetus is with them, notwithstanding Tuesday's 2-1 defeat at Juventus in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie. Marco Reus's precious goal and the prospect of home advantage for the decider leaves them altogether better placed to progress than their arch-rivals, who were beaten 2-0 at home by holders Real Madrid the week before.
Reus, freshly recommitted to his hometown club through to 2019, knows as well as anyone just how much this derby means to the locals. “You learn it from when you're in a cot,” the 25-year-old star explained, “and at some early point you just know it - against Schalke, you just have to run and fight until you drop. You're not allowed to lose.” Schalke, with their own above-average contingent of locally-reared talent, have exactly the same mindset, of course. The sparks are set to fly once more in Germany's traditional industrial, and football, heartland.