The timing couldn't be worse for Dortmund when they host Bayern in the Bundesliga's "German Clasico". Injuries will force them to field a makeshift back four against the league leaders in a must-win title race match.
On a normal weekend, Saturday's "German Clasico" would be the perfect opportunity for Borussia Dortmund to gain ground on league-leaders Bayern Munich. But this is no normal weekend. BVB's defense has been decimated by injuries, while a near-full strength Bayern side have just celebrated their record 37th league match without a defeat.
It is a crucial contest for Dortmund. Their defeat away to Wolfsburg on the last match day put them four points behind Bayern and unfortunately for them, the Bavarians seem to drop points as often as Nuremberg pick them up of late. If Dortmund are serious about returning the Bundesliga trophy to the Ruhr Valley, this is a match they need to win.
Injuries aside, Dortmund are always strong at home (their 1-0 Champions League defeat to Arsenal notwithstanding). They have not lost to Bayern at the Westfalenstadion since September 2009 and, in their last 11 competitive matches against their Bavarian rivals, they have been defeated just three times.
The last encounter between the two sides - July's Supercup final - finished 4-2 to Dortmund, though you could argue Bayern were still adjusting to life under Pep Guardiola while playing with a less-than full strength squad. In any case, it was an overhyped pre-season encounter at best.
Saturday's match, however, is anything but. Bayern's Sporting Director Matthias Sammer summed it up perfectly in an interview with Sport1 television: "This will be a very, very big game for German football and it's obviously comparable to the greatest derbies in the world," he said.
Decimated Dortmund defense
On Wednesday, Dortmund were hit with the news that defenders Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer would miss the Bayern encounter. Hummels will be out until at least mid-January with a heel injury, while Schmelzer will be unavailable for three weeks with a calf strain. Earlier this month, Hummels' partner in central defense Neven Subotic was ruled out for the season after rupturing knee ligaments.
Normally reserve youngster Erik Durm and recent veteran acquisition Manuel Friedrich would be asked to provide emergency defensive cover. Both are carrying injuries of their own, however, putting them in doubt for the Saturday showdown. Durm hurt himself while on duty with Germany's Under-21 side, while Friedrich reportedly picked up a knock of his his own.
Kevin Grosskreutz, who is proving himself to be the league's ultimate and most-reliable utility player, will no doubt fill in at defense, as he has done all season as right back Lukasz Piszczek recovers from a long-term injury. Piszczek himself, who was not expected back until after the winter break, could be thrust into an early return after playing 53 minutes in an exhibition match against Paderborn earlier this week.
Sokratis is the obvious choice to play in the center. The Greek offseason signing has been a capable replacement for either Hummels or Subotic when either was unavailable, but his partner remains unclear. There has been talk that Sven Bender could slide from midfield into the back line; perhaps Grosskreutz will play there if Piszczek can make his return or another right back is found.
The injury and title pursuit talk have overshadowed somewhat the big individual storyline of the match - the return of Mario Götze. The midfielder announced he was leaving Dortmund just ahead of last season's Champions League final for 37 million euros ($48 million) to join that most-despised wealthy rival, Bayern Munich.
Götze has assured the press he is not concerned about what kind of reception he will receive from the Dortmund fans because his roots in the city are still strong.
"I'm not afraid at all," he told Sport Bild newspaper. "I grew up in Dortmund, went to school, took my first steps as a footballer and played lots of games for BVB. Those are all positive memories. Dortmund is a big part of my past on which I look back with pleasure."
Sammer, himself a former Dortmund player and coach, downplayed Götze's homecoming in his usual straightforward style.
"He's not the first to go back to their old workplace," he said. "That's always existed in football."
Attack, attack, attack
With Dortmund sure to be playing a makeshift backline, it would not be very worthwhile to compare them defensively with Bayern. If anything, it raises the odds of a potential goal-fest between the two sides that create more shots on goal than any other Bundesliga team.
Dortmund lead the league in goals scored (32 compared to Bayern's 27), two-thirds of which come from midfield. Much of that boils down to the threatening attacking trio of Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and either Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Jakub Blaszczykowski. Striker Robert Lewandowski scores the rest of their goals, and that is about it.
Bayern, meanwhile, seem to be adapting to Pep's famous tiki-taka, Total Football-esque style of play. Ten of their goals have been either created or scored by defenders, and 11 different players have gotten on the score sheet so far this season. They lead the league in possession (66 percent) and concede fewer goals than any other team (seven).
It will be a formidable task for Dortmund to contain the all-round attack of Bayern. A hastily assembled defense is not one coach Jürgen Klopp will want to contain the likes of Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller, Mario Mandzukic and Götze. Luckily for BVB, Franck Ribery was ruled out of Saturday's match with a cracked rib.
To play such a crucial derby at such an unfortunate time is certainly not to Dortmund's liking. Sporting director Michael Zorc called it "unfortunate scheduling." Chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke offered a slightly different description.
"It's an exceptional situation," he said.