Cologne - Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern München have contested more than their share of top-end tussles in recent years, but their 92nd Bundesliga head-to-head this Saturday will not be one of them. Ten places and a staggering 31 points separate Germany's two international heavyweights going into Matchday 27's meeting at the Signal Iduna Park. With Bayern also ten points clear of their closest pursuers in the title race, you might be forgiven for considering this one something of a dead rubber. If so, it's time to think again.
More than honour at stake
In purely practical terms, both sides have plenty to play for. Five wins and two draws in their last seven games have lifted Dortmund from the foot of the table to the fringes of the battle for a UEFA Europa League place. A modest target by their own standards, perhaps, but one they are now determined to achieve all the same. With a DFB Cup quarter-final against 1899 Hoffenheim and an assignment at third-place Borussia Mönchengladbach to follow in quick succession, the duel with Bayern marks the start of a season-defining week for Jürgen Klopp's men - and one in which they have the opportunity to properly reassert their credentials as a domestic powerhouse.
The record champions, meanwhile, travel to the Ruhr district still smarting from a 2-0 home loss to Mönchengladbach last time out. The international break has given head coach Pep Guardiola a couple of weeks to mull over the lessons learned from that setback, only Bayern's second of the season in the Bundesliga. The first was on Matchday 18 at VfL Wolfsburg, the one side that still harbour any realistic ambitions of snatching the championship shield from their grasp.
Another loss at Dortmund, coupled with the Wolves simultaneously overcoming cellar-dwellers VfB Stuttgart, would cut the gap between the top two to seven points with seven games remaining. Still a commanding lead, of course, not least for a team of Bayern's undoubted world class, but it would certainly put all talk of a runaway title defence on hold for a while. Psychologically, too, having already been beaten this year by both their closest current rivals, the Munich star ensemble have even less desire to see their reputation further tarnished by coming off second-best to Dortmund.
In terms of quality and potential, few would argue that BVB are eminently capable of besting them, or anyone else for that matter, on their day. Going into the sides' first season meeting in Munich, the visitors were already in freefall: 15th in the table and six games without a win, Dortmund nevertheless managed to shift up through the gears and push their great rivals all the way before eventually going down 2-1 in a pulsating, high-class contest.
Much for Guardiola to ponder
The two protagonists go in to the return fixture much more closely matched in terms of form. Bayern have earned 19 points and Dortmund 18 since the start of the Rückrunde. However, the champions' star performer this season, Arjen Robben, is already ruled out of this one with a strained stomach muscle while his counterpart down the left, Franck Ribery, is battling back to fitness following an ankle injury. Guardiola has a different concern further back on the pitch, where the deep midfield combination of Xabi Alonso, Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Alaba failed to spark against Mönchengladbach - just as it had in the 4-1 defeat at Wolfsburg.
Philipp Lahm, a late sub off the bench against the Foals, can probably anticipate a more extended runout this time around while Thomas Müller, who replaced Robben midway through the first half, is likely to fill the flying Dutchman's right-sided berth from the off. Alongside him in the attacking department, the presence of Robert Lewandowski and Mario Götze will add a further touch of spice to the intense atmosphere surrounding this encounter. Needless to say, the two Borussia old boys are capable of inflicting severe damage on their former employers, whether individually or in tandem.
Dotmund with gameplan to unsettle Bayern
Dortmund, likewise hoping a sizeable star contingent all came through the rigours of international duty unscathed, will for their part be looking to speed kings Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Marco Reus to ruffle the feathers of the Bayern back row. They will not, though, be anticipating any gifts of the sort Manuel Neuer presented Gladbach at the Allianz Arena, when a rare lapse from the world keeper of the year allowed Raffael's shot to squirm through his hands for the opening goal.
Instead, faced with the likely prospect of seeing rather less of the ball than usual, BVB have the happy option of falling back on their exceptional counter-attacking ability against the record titleholders. “That's our great strength,” said right-back Oliver Kirch, who will miss Saturday's clash with a knee injury. “Wham-bam, back of the net.” At one end or the other, it's a highly plausible scenario in this or any other edition of the definitive Bundesliga Klassiker.