Second-placed BVB have built up a 13-point advantage over Sunday’s hosts, but Die Werkself come into the game emboldened by a six-match unbeaten run.
Klassiker on the horizon
For Dortmund, Sunday’s blockbuster fixture represents the first of six testing fixtures in the space of just three weeks, culminating in Der Klassiker against defending champions FC Bayern München on 5 March. Thomas Tuchel’s troupe also have the second leg of their UEFA Europa League last-32 tie with FC Porto to negotiate following their upcoming Leverkusen hurdle.
“We feel ready for the challenges ahead,” affirmed Dortmund’s head coach in the wake of a narrow, albeit somewhat one-sided, 1-0 victory at home to Hannover 96 on Matchday 20. “We have to improve, but it was important to top up on self-confidence so that we can go into the coming matches in the right frame of mind.”
Tired Leverkusen legs
The fixture computer has been no kinder to Leverkusen. A fortnight after holding league leaders Bayern to a goalless draw in an exemplarily defensive display, Bayer have just as many games to contend with as BVB in the coming weeks – including their own Round of 32 Europa League tussle with Sporting Clube de Portugal.
“We’re all a bit exhausted,” admitted Leverkusen midfielder Kevin Kampl – who made 13 Bundesliga appearances for Dortmund in 2014/15 - after last weekend’s come-from-behind victory away to stubborn SV Darmstadt 98. “It was extremely hard and very tiring, but the league table is looking good now. A win like this can be extremely important for our season.”
Realistically, Leverkusen are unlikely to peg BVB back in the standings before the 2015/16 campaign is out. Although Die Werkself are still competing in Europe, defeat to SV Werder Bremen in the quarter-finals of the DFB Cup does not make their task of ending a 23-year wait for silverware any easier. A good run in Europe and top-four finish in the Bundesliga could nevertheless save their season.
Fellow Europa League contenders Dortmund, by contrast, are through to the last four of Germany’s domestic cup competition and could yet overhaul Bayern at the Bundesliga summit. The deficit between the top two currently reads eight points, a gap that surely cannot be allowed to widen ahead of next month’s Klassiker, if Die Schwarz-Gelben are to stand any chance of adding a sixth Bundesliga title to their collection this term.
Aubameyang to return
To that end, victory over Leverkusen is a must. Tuchel’s high-energy game proved too much for Roger Schmidt’s side back on Matchday 5, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rounding out a comprehensive 3-0 win. The Gabon international topped the scoring charts until last Saturday, but after missing out against Hannover and failing to find a way past FC Ingolstadt 04 a week earlier, has ground to make up on Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski in the race for the Torjägerkanone.
The same goes for Leverkusen’s Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez. The prolific Mexico international, whose 12th and 13th Bundesliga goals of the season came against Hannover on Matchday 19, was conspicuous by his injury-enforced absence last time out and is likely to miss the trip to the SIGNAL IDUNA PARK, too. Nonetheless, Schmidt’s charges will fancy their chances of coming out on top when the two north-west German powerhouses collide in front of a capacity crowd at the BayArena this weekend.