Sunday, 24 November 2013

Die Classic: The Imbalance of power in German football

Recently, Germany has usurped Spain as the dominant force in European football, with their two grandeur clubs contesting the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley. They did this having overcome Spain's finest by an aggregate score of 11-3 over four semi-finals, cementing the Bundesliga's place at the top of the European food chain. There are stark differences however between the Barcelona/Real Madrid rivalry and the Bayern Munich/Borussia Dortmund one.

Spain's Clasico boasts two enormous football conglomerates, two cities, two cultures battling it out for the title more often than not. German football is different. It's more David vs Goliath than God vs Satan. Dortmund are the plucky little guys, the hipster's club. The rebel alliance to Bayern's galactic empire. Mario Gotze last summer, gave into the temptation Luke Skywalker was able to resist and turned to the 'dark side' of German football.

Luke chose death rather than joining the evil Empire. Unlike so many others

In Spain, players at 'non-Clasico' clubs dream of playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona. In Germany, players at 'non-Bayern Munich' clubs dream of playing for Bayern. Dortmund may be a stepping stone on the way but that's all they are. Like Schalke, Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, just another Bundesliga club that isn't Bayern.

Dortmund's rise from financial meltdown to the 2013 Champions League final is remarkable and wouldn't have been possible without the club that would ultimately conquer them that night in Wembley. In crisis and unable to pay their players, Dortmund received a €2m loan from the Bavarian club to help relieve some of the troubles at the club. The loan interest-free, paid back within six months and not mentioned again until early 2013, by which time Dortmund had won two Bundesliga titles on the trot. The club survived its dark days and Jurgen Klopp arrived in May 2008, turning them into German champions within three years and into the nearest thing Bayern have to a genuine rival.

Klopp has worked miracles at Dortmund on a limited budger

It hasn't all been roses for Bayern. Currently in the midst of a golden age, the biggest club in Germany didn't have it all their own way in the mid 2000s, certainly not on the European front, failing to advance beyond the quarter-finals between their win in 2001 and their return to the final in 2010. Bayern's sluggishness was most likely brought about by a lack of competition in the Bundesliga. Werder Bremen, Stuttgart and Wolfsburg all won intermittent titles but none posed a long term threat to Bayern. They had no one to push them. Since Dortmund emerged as a force in 2009/10, Bayern have reached three out of four European finals. Every successful person or team in history needed a rival to bring out the best in them. Bayern needed Dortmund in order to become what they are now. The best club side in the world.

Seems unthinkable now given the strength of the side but Bayern actually failed to qualify for the Champions League as recently as 2007. In response they went out and bought Franck Ribery, a purchase which in many ways heralded the beginning of the current era. Arjen Robben, another marquee player in the current team arrived in 2009. Nationwide investment in youth ( a reaction to the national teams flounderings) began to reap huge rewards, Toni Kroos, David Alaba and Tomas Muller all came through to the first team during this period. The likes of Neur, Gomez (sorry, can't resist) van Buyten and Mandzukic all arrived from Bundesliga rivals. The Bayern effect. The same lure that attracted them also persuaded Mario Gotze to switch camps and leave Dortmund behind in last summer. Lewandowski has openly declared his willingness to follow suit in 2014.

Robbery (no?) have been Bayern's driving force
Saturday night's game was an extremely stern and painful reminder for Jurgen Klopp that unlike Spain's Clasico, there is a clear pecking order in Germany. Bayern are in charge. Not only that but Dortmund have helped them get there. Dortmund were the better side for most of the game and really should have been the side to open the scoring either late in the first half or early in the second. Lewandowski, Reus, Blaszczykowski and Mkhitaryan all squandering good chances to tilt the game the way of the hosts. Bayern created very little clear cut chances before they took the lead. Javi Martinez playing in an advanced role was not one of Guardiola's better ideas and Dortmund should have punished them.

 It's hard to believe this Bayern defence has only conceded 7 goals all season. They were caught out several times and but for better finishing, could well have lost this game. David Alaba was left exposed too many times to Dortmund's potent right flank. Blaszczykowski and Grosskreutz combined excellently as they usually do. Alaba's a fantastic player. Wasted at left back.

Typically, it was the player Bayern prised from them during the summer. Mario Gotze prolonged his inevitable hostile reception by hiding in the tunnel prior to making his entrance as a substitute. He was roundly booed by the fans he'd left behind but still refused to celebrate his goal, appearing almost apologetic. Gotze's brilliant finish sent a below-par Bayern on their way to a rather flattering 3-0 win. A stunning chip from Robben and a Tomas Muller goal a minute later put some extra gloss on the scoreline and emphasised just how frightening the prospect of a Bayern side in top gear really is.

Jeered like hell but Gotze still refused to celebrate his opener

The result puts Bayern, now unbeaten in 38 Bundesliga games, 7 points ahead of Dortmund after just 13 games. Given how few points the champions are likely to drop to teams in the Bundesliga, the title race can effectively be considered over for this year. Pep Guardiola had an exceptional record in El Clasico and has began his Die Classic (not going to stick) with an emphatic, message-sending win. Bayern will walk to the title probably with as much ease as they did last year and come spring time, can shift their focus towards the historically much more difficult task of retaining the Champions League.

For Klopp and Dortmund this defeat must mean a whole lot more than just three points. They've done everything right. Bought wisely again this summer, filled the gap left by Gotze's defection and it seems no matter how hard they try, Bayern will always have the better of them. How they pick the pieces up and recover from this humbling experience will be a true test of the character of this Dortmund side. I really don't know where they go from here but they sure won't settle for being the second best team in the Bundesliga.

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