Pundits and players alike have billed it as the decisive fixture of the Bundesliga season. Be that as it may: Bayern Munich's midweek trip to Borussia Dortmund is surely the most important match of the season so far.
The last month of Bundesliga football, especially for those concentrated on the top of the table, has felt curiously like a prelude to the main event - with April 11 marked in red on everyone's calendars. Bayern Munich travel to Dortmund on Wednesday, seeking their first win against Jürgen Klopp's side in two seasons. And they need it. Dortmund already hold a three-point lead in the Bundesliga, and they would double that advantage to six with a home victory.
Dortmund's star defender, Mats Hummels, who rose through Bayern's youth ranks before moving north, offered a pre-match verdict that most media pundits seem to agree with.
"If we win, then I don't think we'll let anyone take [the title] away from us," the German international said.
What is certain is that if Dortmund win - or even draw - Bayern will need some big favors from their other Bundesliga rivals to have any chance at the title. Dortmund's subsequent two matches in the league, however, are against third-placed Schalke and then fourth-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach - hardly what you'd call easy fixtures. Bayern's run-in is no picnic either, including an away game in Bremen and a home fixture against Stuttgart. So Wednesday's battle of the titans might not be the decisive match after all.
Both Dortmund and Bayern did just enough over the weekend without producing their best. Dortmund traveled to Wolfsburg and won 3-1 against a strong home side, while a rather languid Bayern beat hard-working Augsburg 2-1 in Munich. Sporting director Christian Nerlinger praised striker Mario Gomez for two key goals in Saturday's game, before immediately setting his sights on the midweek match.
"The two outstanding sides of the season are meeting. I am convinced that we will get the decisive victories in the final push for the title," Nerlinger said.
The Bavarians have the best goal difference in the league, meaning a win would catapult them to the top of the table. They also head into the game with some of their more fragile key players like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger - who returned to the starting lineup against Augsburg after a lengthy injury - fully fit.
Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp, meanwhile, might have a tough selection dilemma on Wednesday. Rumors that German international Mario Götze could return against Wolfsburg proved unfounded at the weekend, but if the convalescing starlet is ready for action, will Dortmund risk throwing him back in at the deep end?
That problem is exacerbated by the performances Götze's replacements have consistently delivered in his absence. Jakub Blaszczykowski and Ivan Perisic have both performed well in attacking midfield, while summer signing Ilkay Gündogan - who had a difficult first few months in the Ruhr valley - has recently started to realize the potential he showed with Nuremberg last season. In fact, Gündogan scored one of the finest goals of match-day 29, curling a peach into the top corner to put Dortmund two goals to the good in Wolfsburg.
Chasing Heynckes' record
As well as winning their past three encounters with Bayern, Dortmund go into the game on an exceptional run of form. Klopp's men have not lost in 23 league games, with the all-time Bundesliga record set at 24 without defeat.
Heynckes knows what it is to go 24 unbeaten in the Bundesliga, he won't want Jürgen Klopp to find out
That record belongs to Bayer Leverkusen and was set in the 2009-10 season, under the stewardship of Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes. Leverkusen, never a Bundesliga winner, crumbled when their run came to an end - inexplicably gifting the title to a hard-charging Bayern Munich.
With the bitterness of that pill probably still lingering in the back of his throat, Bayern's coach must have considered that a win in Dortmund on Wednesday might similarly demoralize Dortmund's relatively young squad. Facing the fabled Revierderby against Schalke next, followed by a tricky match against Gladbach, the last thing Dortmund's squad needs now is to be reintroduced to the taste of failure after six sweet months.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Nancy Isenson