Borussia Dortmund can make eye-off-the-ball Bayern Munich pay

Ian Hawkey writes while the footballing world has been sleeping on the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund have made this an actual title race to pay attention to.

Borussia Dortmund star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang shown before a Bunesliga match against Augsburg in October. Odd Andersen / AFP / October 25, 2015
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If only the Bundesliga was won on the basis of a calendar year.

The 2016 pacesetters would not, surprise, surprise, be you-know-who, not the Bavarian club who have made such a habit of towering over the rest in the past four seasons that the casual outsider barely thinks it worth looking at the table after about February.

Bayern Munich, at least in the two full seasons Pep Guardiola has been there, tend to have the title all but confirmed before the clocks go forward in the spring.

This year that coronation has been at least delayed, thanks to Borussia Dortmund's many goals and gathering momentum. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is even some suspense to be contrived over the next six weeks.

These are Guardiola’s last months in charge at Bayern.

He will join Manchester City officially in July, but has been in conversation with his future club's executives about strategy already.

The notion he may have taken his eye off the ball in Bavaria, with his inevitable glances at City's slightly fragile status as a top-four Premier League club, is taken almost a slur by the hard-working Catalan.

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But sift through the recent results, and some of the performances of Bayern in the three and a half months since it became public knowledge that Guardiola would be leaving, to be replaced in the summer by Carlo Ancelotti, ex of Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and AC Milan, and there have been stumbles.

In their Uefa Champions League last-16 tie against Juventus, Bayern were the second best team for well over 90 minutes of the tie.

To Guardiola’s credit, they showed enough gumption, over the whole three and half hours that the two-legged contest stretched to, to emerge with a place in next week’s quarter-finals, where Bayern meet Benfica.

In the league, 2016 has already featured that rare event, a Bundesliga defeat at the Allianz Arena, a month ago to Mainz. Indeed, this calendar year, Bayern’s win ratio in domestic competition is a mere 70 per cent. They have dropped seven points of a possible 30.

Dortmund, in the same period, have won eight of their 10 matches and drawn two, including the goalless impasse against Bayern, itself a statement that Dortmund have come closer to the champions in standard in the course of the season. Bayern had thrashed Borussia 5-1 in the autumn.

The gap between first and second place now is still five points, with seven fixtures to go, but it is more legitimate to consider the Bundesliga an edifice with a two-storey penthouse at the top, shared by Bayern and Dortmund, with more modest apartments beneath, than a simple one-horse race. Third-placed Hertha Berlin trail Dortmund by 12 points.

Thomas Tuchel, the Dortmund coach, meticulous and precise, has certainly completed his mission, which was to restore status in the upper reaches of the German top-flight after last season’s decline at the end of Jurgen Klopp’s long reign in charge.

Saturday’s home meeting with Werder Bremen will carry reminders of the Klopp farewell. It was in this fixture last season that Dortmund’s fans said goodbye to “Kloppo”, hugely appreciative of how he had galvanised the club for most of his time there.

On Thursday, they get to thank him again, when Tuchel's high-scoring Dortmund meet Liverpool, Klopp's new project, in the Europa League.

Mostly, the outlook for Dortmund is rosy, though there are some shadows cast over what might be a very exciting spring. Neven Subotic, the central defender, has just been ruled out for the season with a thrombosis problem, and the long-term future of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, outstanding this season with his 10 goals and 13 assists in the Bundesliga, is uncertain, with interest reported from Juventus and Arsenal in signing him.

“Everybody knows how much I value Henrikh,” said Tuchel yesterday. “The ball is in his court.”

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