Borussia Dortmund have scarcely had the chance to catch a breath in the build-up to this weekend’s Klassiker with defending champions FC Bayern München.
Die Schwarz-Gelben have been pushed to the very limit by the likes of VfB Stuttgart, Bayer 04 Leverkusen and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim in recent weeks, but still have an uncomfortable-looking trip to Darmstadt to overcome prior to Matchday 25’s main event.
Night and day
On paper, Darmstadt away is a fixture Dortmund should be winning. Second in the table and competing for honours in the UEFA Europa League and DFB Cup, BVB are enjoying their most successful season since reaching the final of the UEFA Champions League and domestic cup in 2012/13. After Bayern, they are also the Bundesliga’s most prolific outfit this term on 57 goals.
By contrast, Darmstadt - enjoying their first season at Germany’s top table since 1982 - are down in 14th place with just 25 goals to their name. The Lilies are yet to spend a single second in the relegation zone, but that is largely down to their striking away form (W4, D3, L5). On home soil, they have won just once all season, and while Dortmund’s squad reads like a regular who’s who of the Bundesliga’s finest, the heart-on-the sleeve individuals that man the Darmstadt dressing room were, until recently, relative unknowns.
It is, nevertheless, that never-say-die team spirit that has made unassuming Darmstadt such an awkward opponent. They won 1-0 in Leverkusen on Matchday 4, stunned the Allianz Arena by taking the lead in an eventual 3-1 loss to FC Bayern a fortnight ago and took a point off Dortmund at the SIGNAL IDUNA PARK on Matchday 7. Make no mistake, Dirk Schuster’s troupe are not the relegation fodder they were made out to be in pre-season.
Collectively resolute and a nightmare to defend against from set pieces - Darmstadt have netted a Bundesliga-high 17 goals from dead-ball situations so far this season - it is a fixture Dortmund could arguably have done without at such a momentous juncture in their campaign. Victory in Darmstadt would keep them within five to eight points of Bayern, but anything else leaves them with an absolute mountain to climb in the title race, even if they were to go on and defeat the league leaders in Der Klassiker.
David vs Goliath
That Dortmund are still even considered contenders, however, is a triumph in itself given Bayern’s consistently eye-watering performance levels - and is testament to the coaching skills of former 1. FSV Mainz 05 strategist Tuchel. The 42-year-old has been quick to put his paw-print all over the side following Jürgen Klopp’s departure at the end of last season, taking the games of established first-teamers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to another level, whilst making shrewd use of fringe and breakthrough talent such as 17-year-old American midfielder Christian Pulisic.
Even with BVB’s Greece international defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos out of the equation through injury, it is an abundance of riches Darmstadt could only wish for. Yet, what the Hesse outfit lack in globally recognisable stars, they more than make up for in commitment and intensity. As ever, a capacity 16,500-strong crowd is expected inside the rustic Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor - the Bundesliga’s smallest ground no less - where the Lilies will be determined to show the might of Dortmund that size does not matter in the slightest.