If last season is anything to go by, the upcoming derby between league leaders Borussia Dortmund and struggling rivals Schalke should be a thriller. This could prove Dortmund's sternest test since Bayern visited.
You won't catch Bayern Munich supporters or staff cheering for Schalke very often, but this Saturday could be the exception.
Borussia Dortmund's local rivals need points in their own right after a calamitous start to the season. But the even bigger prize on offer to Domenico Tedesco's men is the pride of inflicting BVB's first defeat of the Bundesliga season. As Dortmund's defensive midfielder Thomas Delaney pointed out, form is meaningless before such a fixture.
"Schalke could be playing in the second division and it would still be a tough match," Delaney told the local daily Ruhr Nachrichten , calling the Revierderby "one of the biggest games in Europe."
It's BVB's biggest test in the Bundesliga since their 3-2 comeback win at home against Bayern Munich.
If Dortmund are the form side this season, it's Schalke who got the better of their rivals in the previous campaign — with their first meeting dubbed the "derby of the century" in some circles. November's match in Dortmund finished 4-4, and Schalke's recovery was all the more stunning given that Dortmund had led 4-0 after 25 minutes. At the Veltins Arena, Schalke later beat Dortmund 2-0 en route to their second-place finish in the league. Brazilian defender Naldo scored in both games, including a stoppage-time equalizer in the November fight back.
There's always pressure on derby day, but the two sides have one heck of a precedent from last season to live up to
"It will be a very difficult game. That's clear," Dortmund coach Lucien Favre, whose team haven't beaten Schalke in five attempts, said before his first Revierderby. "It's a little bit special."
Schalke strikers in short supply
Both sides are carrying knocks as the winter break nears but Schalke are in particular trouble up front. Forwards Breel Embolo, Mark Uth and Franco di Santo will all miss Saturday's game with injury, while Guido Burgstaller and Steven Skrzbyski are both doubtful. Schalke have just 14 goals from their first 13 league matches, one of the main reasons why they trail their rivals by 19 points and 11 positions. That said, results have been improving in recent weeks, especially at home.
Dortmund are likely to be without central defender Dan-Axel Zagadou on Saturday. October's Bundesliga player of the month, Jadon Sancho, was also absent from Thursday's training session because of a family bereavement, but is expected to be ready for the game. Favre has players returning from spells on the sideline that could cover both these doubts: winger Christian Pulisic and defender Manuel Akanji are both ready for renewed action.
Reus knows the fixture well, but many of Dortmund's players like Axel Witsel will be losing their Revierderby virginity
Lots of derby debuts at revamped Dortmund
In a sign of how active the club has been both on the transfer market and in its youth setup, a string of Dortmund players are set for their first-ever Schalke derby at the weekend. Depending on Favre's selection, it's entirely possible that as few as three BVB starters — Roman Bürki, Lukasz Piszczek and captain Marco Reus — will have played the Royal Blues before. And even veteran Reus will be gunning for a personal first against Schalke; all four of his career goals in the Revierderby were scored on home turf.
For all the exciting attacking additions like Sancho, super sub extraordinaire Paco Alcacer or Jacob Bruun Larsen, two of Dortmund's key signings have bolstered the center of midfield. Belgian international Axel Witsel came in for special praise this week from BVB external adviser and former star Matthias Sammer.
"He has a natural authority, a natural demeanor, and yet he's not the classic megaphone either," Sammer said, praising Witsel in particular for "not hiding, but rather stepping forward in all manner of pressure scenarios. He's currently a real heartbeat of the team and a super signing."
Perhaps it's also telling that Delaney, Dortmund's other holding midfield reinforcement, was on Schalke's shopping list in the off-season, until the Royal Blues abandoned the chase when confronted with a reported €20 million ($22.8 million) transfer fee.
Elsewhere in the Bundesliga on Matchday 14:
Matchday 14 fixture list:
Werder Bremen vs. Fortuna Düsseldorf (Friday, 8:30 p.m. CET)
Bayern Munich vs. FC Nuremberg (Saturday, 3:30 p.m.)
Schalke vs. Borussia Dortmund
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Augsburg
Freiburg vs. RB Leipzig
Wolfsburg vs. Hoffenheim
Hertha Berlin vs. Frankfurt (6:30 p.m.)
Mainz vs. Hannover (Sunday, 3:30 p.m.)
Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Stuttgart (6:00 p.m.)