It couldn’t be any better: the top two teams in the land, Dortmund and Bayern Munich, squaring off for the German Cup. And for once, the mighty Bavarians have to be considered slight underdogs.
To understand the 2012 German Cup final, imagine the hypothetical speeches both coaches will make in their dressing rooms on Saturday night:
Bayern's Jupp Heynckes: "Men, we're up against eleven football-addicted lunatics who will press us all over the pitch and make up for any individual shortcomings by running beyond the point of exhaustion. Any of them can score at any time from various positions, so we're going to have to approach this as if we were facing Real Madrid or Barcelona. Good luck."
Dortmund's Jürgen Klopp: "Guys, we've beaten this team four times on the trot and haven't lost a match in 2012. Let's rock."
The clash between Germany's two top teams Saturday is the best Cup final match-up of the new millennium. Munich beat Dortmund 2-1 in the 2008 Cup final. So are Bayern the favorites this time round? Don't bet on it.
Two-time reigning league champs Dortmund have a number of advantages, psychological and otherwise.
Dortmund's extraordinary work rate is undoubtedly one key to their multiple record-setting season and a major reason why Klopp's men have outclassed Bayern in the past two Bundesliga campaigns. But Dortmund run intelligently as well as relentlessly.
The men in yellow and black like to set up triangles in front of opponents with the ball in their own half. This can be a risky tactic against better teams, if spacing isn't perfect, but Dortmund have absolutely mastered this aspect of the game, and when they win the ball, they're in ideal position to immediately attack.
Players often find themselves in unusual areas of the pitch, but this is actually an advantage because it confronts opponents with unpredictable situations.
Case in point: Dortmund's 2-1 win over Schalke that all but sealed the 2011-12 league title. The tide-turning goal was scored by Lukas Piszczek, a right back, from the left-hand corner of the box. It's difficult for defenders to anticipate situations that are that unexpected. And a further wild card will be the return of prodigy Mario Götze, who sat out much of the season with an injury.
Bayern, by contrast, play a much more typical 4-3-3 that emphasizes short passing. Munich's game plan focuses on getting the ball out to the wings, where Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben have the option of either dribbling into the middle or crossing in for Mario Gomez.
But opponents have realized that double- and triple-teaming the wingers and forcing them to the sidelines is an effective way of disrupting Bayern's attack. And when Heynckes' men aren't at their sharpest, the result is a lot of lateral and back passing that doesn't generate real offensive pressure.
Bayern seek to inject variety into their game by allowing Ribery and Robben to switch sides at will, but that's unlikely to cause Dortmund serious concern. Instead, Munich need to get their passes off instantaneously – and deal with the consequences, if one goes awry.
Defense Wins Trophies
Cup finals are do-or-die affairs, and you can't snatch the silverware unless you defend well under pressure. On this score, there's little separating both teams, who made up two of the Bundesliga's top three defenses this season.
In goal, Bayern probably have a slight advantage with Manuel Neuer. After some initial problems adjusting to his much less proactive role with the Bavarians, the German national number one has hit top form, keeping Bayern in the game in their narrow 1-nil loss to Dortmund in April and sending them through to the Champions League final with a series of heroics against Real Madrid.
If the Cup final comes down to penalties as Munich's semi-final versus Real did, you'll have to fancy Bayern.
But Dortmund can counter with Mats Hummels, the best central defender in Germany, and a vastly superior approach to team defense. Whereas Robben, in particular, behaves as if defensive duties are a potential cause of cancer, players like Shinji Kagawa and Kevin Grosskreutz selflessly track back when required.
And that brings us to what may be the decisive factor in this match: willingness to give one's all.
Dortmund's situation could not be simpler. They have one game left this season, and if they win, they get a nifty addition for the club's trophy cabinet.
Bayern, on the other hand, have the Champions League final in Munich against Chelsea one week later. And regardless of all the pre-Cup-final blather, the Bavarians are going to have club football's ultimate prize in the back of their minds as they approach Dortmund.
In fact, if someone offered a guaranteed Champions League victory in return for a Cup final loss, no one at Bayern Munich's front office would think twice about signing the contract.
With the exception of Holger Badstuber, David Alaba and Luiz Gustavo, who are banned for yellow cards against Chelsea, Bayern's squad have to be mindful of avoiding injuries that would force them to sit out what could be the biggest match of their lives.
It would thus be surprising if the oft-hurt Robben in particular will be in the mental frame of mind to give 100 percent. And as Bayern have found out four times over the past two seasons, anything less than 100 percent isn't good enough against Dortmund.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Matt Zuvela