Borussia Dortmund have experienced more than their fair share of highs and lows in a tough 2016/17, yet the Black-and-Yellows are determined to go out on a high note in Saturday's keenly-anticipated DFB Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt in Berlin.
It has been anything but a straightforward campaign for Dortmund. Since last summer, the Black-and-Yellows have had to deal with the loss of three of their biggest stars - Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gündogan – as well as a series of injury crises involving key first-team players. Add in the shocking attack on their team bus on April 11, and you start to realise what a remarkable achievement it was for them to finish the Bundesliga season in third place, not to mention reaching the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals and making it to the final of the DFB Cup.
"There were so many different things going on that were really challenging," admitted coach Thomas Tuchel ahead of Saturday's final against the Eagles. "We had enormous problems with injuries in particular. So the team and the entire support staff have earned my utmost respect, because they never lost sight of our target."
With Marco Reus, Andre Schürrle, Mario Götze, Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin all enduring lengthy spells on the sidelines, Tuchel put his faith in highly-talented youngsters such as Julian Weigl (21), Ousmane Dembele (20) and Christian Pulisic (18), while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's ice-cool finishing earned him a maiden top scorer's cannon with 31 Bundesliga goals.
Whenever BVB had their backs to the wall this season, Tuchel's charges delivered. Whether it was successive Champions League draws with Real Madrid, narrow Bundesliga wins over Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, or key victories against Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen in the latter stages – let alone the DFB Cup semi-final triumph over holders Bayern – they got the job done.
"That gives us enormous self-confidence for next week," the coach agreed. "The season is not over just yet, but we can crown it in Berlin."
Berlin's Olympiastadion has become something of a second home for Dortmund, who have played in four of the last five DFB Cup finals. However, their last victory came all the way back in May 2012, as they swept aside Bayern (5-2) to complete a league and cup double. Since then, it's been three consecutive defeats, to Bayern (2014), Wolfsburg (2015) and Bayern again (2016) – but Marcel Schmelzer is convinced they can stop the rot this time around.
"We know what to expect in Berlin," said the Dortmund captain, who is racing to recover from a thigh injury in time for Saturday's showpiece. "We have experience on our side, and when we combine that with our quality and mentality, I'm very confident that we'll be able to lift the trophy."
Goalkeeper Roman Bürki believes that BVB's spectacular 4-3 final-day victory over Bremen – which saw them clinch third place at the expense of Hoffenheim – will act as a springboard to success against Frankfurt.
"The game against Bremen has given us a lot of confidence for next week. Auba won the top scorer's cannon and we managed to qualify directly for the Champions League. We can take all of these things, enjoy them, and use them to give us fresh impetus for next Saturday."
Watch: Aubameyang struck late as Dortmund edged Bremen on Matchday 34:
Frankfurt may have other ideas, of course, especially after claiming an impressive 2-1 win over Dortmund back on Matchday 12. The Eagles are gearing up for their first final since losing 1-0 to Bayern in 2006, and coach Niko Kovac believes they will be the underdogs once again.
"Dortmund are the better football team," he said. "They only have strengths! If you look at the squads, then we are certainly the outsiders on Saturday. But anything is possible in a single game, and we have confidence and desire. We will have to attack and make it difficult for them."
Kovac won the DFB Cup as a player with Bayern in 2002/03, and he now has a chance to repeat the experience as a coach in his hometown. "I'm looking forward to being back in Berlin and seeing my friends and family," he added. "It makes the final even more special for me."
The Croatian – who also described his BVB counterpart Tuchel as "a genius" – welcomes back two important players in defender Jesus Vallejo and striker Alexander Meier, while Slobodan Medojevic and Andersson Ordonez are also expected to have recovered by Saturday. "If things go as I hope they will, the game will be played on a knife edge," Kovac promised.
As for Dortmund, they will have to do without Weigl, Götze and potentially Schmelzer, but Sahin is fit and Schürrle could also make his return at the Olympiastadion. One man who has absolutely no intention of missing out is Reus, who suffered a scare against Bremen when he collided with a goalpost.
"I'll play with one leg in Berlin if I have to, I don't care," Reus insisted after the incident. "I'll take some painkillers. I'm not missing this one."
It's easy enough to understand Reus' resolve, after injury forced him to miss out on FIFA World Cup glory with Germany in 2014. He has played in BVB's last three final defeats, sustaining an injury against Bayern last year that also ruled him out of UEFA EURO 2016. Could Saturday finally be the day the 27-year-old lands his first major trophy?
"The season was a difficult one, with many highs and lows, but we always came back," Reus pointed out. "That positivity could be very significant for the cup final. Frankfurt are a tough side to play against, but all of us will be ready. We want to win the cup!"
So, can Dortmund cap a tough campaign with their first major trophy in five years, or will Frankfurt spring an upset and secure a first DFB Cup title since 1988? Find out on Saturday when the final gets underway at 20:00 CEST.