Cologne - FC Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund are household names all over the world these days, and it is a fixture that has long held great significance. It is a clash of two of German and European football’s bona-fide heavyweights. The fixture has the power to electrify fans everywhere.
My first experience of der Klassiker was in September 2001 in Dortmund. The stadium was packed to the rafters and expectations were sky-high. Bayern came away with a comfortable 2-0 victory, but BVB ended the season as champions.
Since then there have been so many highlights. The sides have finished as the top two in four of the last five seasons, they have met in three DFB Cup finals in recent years and even in the final of the UEFA Champions League. Those were just the latest additions to the rich history and intriguing sub-plots that surround the fixture.
Since the Bundesliga's inception in 1963 and Bayern's swift ascent of the football ladder in the 1970s, die Münchner have always been the team to beat. The likes of Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hamburger SV and SV Werder Bremen have all challenged the domestic order to varying degrees of success down the years, but the record German champions have always come out the other side all the better for it.
In the mid-to-late 90s and then in the Jürgen Klopp-era, however, Bayern’s mettle was put to the ultimate test by a familiar foe hailing from the predominantly working-class Ruhr district. Surprising many under the unrestrained tutelage of coaching newcomer Klopp, Dortmund made an emphatic return to the pinnacle of the German game by winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles as well as the 2012 DFB Cup. Just like that, the Bayern monopoly had been broken.
Bayern bite back with a vengeance
In need of a serious pick-me-up after playing second fiddle to Dortmund for two seasons running, Bayern ironically appointed Matthias Sammer - he who had won the Bundesliga with BVB both as a player and as a coach- as sporting director in a bid to lift them back to the top of the pile. Sure enough, the Bavarians enjoyed a new lease of life in 2012/13, coasting to the Bundesliga title, lifting the DFB Cup and edging Dortmund in the first all-German Champions League final at Wembley Stadium. Normal service, by Bayern's standards, had been resumed.
Domestically, Bayern have continued to reign supreme ever since. The record German champions won a Bundesliga and DFB Cup double in Pep Guardiola’s debut campaign and defended their league crown with room to spare in 2014/15. BVB, for their part, finished a distant second in 2013/14, but came up some 33 points short of their great rivals from Germany’s south in Klopp’s final season in charge.
Once again the Bundesliga’s top two
A dip in standards effectively ensured Klopp’s successor, Thomas Tuchel, had carte blanche when he stepped into the Dortmund breach in summer 2015, and while the easy-on-the-eye attacking element has remained, it has been refined to the point where it is much less 'heavy metal' and far more rhythm and blues. Add layers of determination and discipline into the mix, and it is easy to see why die Schwarz-Gelben are Bayern’s nearest pursuers ahead of Sunday’s title ding-dong.
By the same token, Bayern - chasing a record eighth straight Bundesliga win since the start of the season and already with a five-point lead at the top of the standings - are reaping the rewards of some subtle pre-season tinkerings of their own. Douglas Costa has hit the ground running, alleviating the club’s reliance on Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben in the wide areas, Arturo Vidal has brought measured aggression and directness to the table and former Dortmund hero Robert Lewandowski - with ten goals in his last three outings in all competitions - is benefitting from a far more varied game plan.
Typical Klassiker fare
For the neutral, Sunday’s showdown ticks all the boxes. The Bundesliga’s top two: both boasting a wealth of star-studded individual talent, both unbeaten all season and both playing some of the most exciting football the German game has ever witnessed - all under one roof.
Die Münchner and die Schwarz-Gelben might be worlds apart culturally, but when it comes to kicking a football, their basic principles are one and the same: attack, excite and go that extra mile to win. Especially in Der Klassiker.
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