Call it the Caretaker’s Cup final. It’s a joust of the two most powerful clubs in Germany who, seeing out a turbulent 2017, both find themselves under temporary management and drawn together unusually early in a competition they have come to dominate.
Bayern Munich host Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday evening in the last-16 of the German Cup, the main domestic knockout competition, before going into a winter break when their bosses will ponder carefully who they want as managers in the longer term.
Right now, Bayern are guided by a 72-year-old who had been retired for more than four years until he answered an emergency call in October and accepted an interim post for his fourth spell in charge of the German champions.
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Now that Jupp Heynckes has overseen nine wins in his 10 Bundesliga matches, and four victories out of four in the Uefa Champions League, since taking over from the sacked Carlo Ancelotti, there is muttering he might even be asked to stay on beyond the agreed departure date of June.
Meanwhile, Dortmund, who 10 days ago waved goodbye to Peter Bosz, the Dutchman they hired only in the summer, are beginning to warm to the charismatic Peter Stoger, their stopgap. Two matches into his shift, Dortmund have earned six points - three times as many as Bosz gathered in his last six games during Dortmund’s alarming tumble to eighth in the table.
They are back in the top four now, which will ease their nerves over the mid-season break. Heynckes’ Bayern are Winter Champions, a feelgood title the club are in the habit of claiming at the halfway point of most recent campaigns, and there will be confidence that the winner of Wednesday’s tie can go all the way to the final in the German Cup. Three of the last six finals have been Dortmund-Bayern affairs.
That fact is a reminder that the hierarchy of German football is entrenched: one club lording it, and then Dortmund expecting to be the strongest in Bayern’s wake.
Bayern’s Bundesliga lead over second-placed Schalke 04 stands at 11 points. Hence Dortmund’s panic. Looking up at Bayern is a necessary nuisance; trailing local rivals Schalke a big bruise to self-esteem. So they sacked Bosz, whose attacking style had become too loose for comfort.
That they turned to Stoger, the 51-year-old Austrian, to impose rigour raised eyebrows in as far as he had only just been freshly relieved of his duties at Cologne, rock-bottom of the table and marooned there by a run of no wins and 11 defeats in their first 14 league matches of the campaign.
Stoger’s resume has healthier entries than that, notably the chapter where he guided Cologne into Europe last May, but he knows Dortmund regard his salvage job as a temporary one.
He joked to Julian Nagelsmann, the Hoffenheim manager, as they emerged from the tunnel at the beginning of Saturday’s fixture at Dortmund’s Westfalen stadium: “Remember which bench is yours.”
Nagelsmann got it. He is widely tipped as Dortmund’s next manager, although his contract with Hoffenheim, whom he has had punching handsomely above their weight, has 18 months still remaining.
Nagelsmann is also admired by Bayern. And he is just 30 years old. In less than two years as a senior manager, he has taken Hoffenheim from the edge of relegation to a Champions League play-off and become something of a trendsetter for young managers in Germany.
Whisper it around Heynckes, but he is very much the grandfather in a league where the caretakers are looking over their shoulders at the kids.
Schalke’s impressive young manager is Domenico Tedesco, who only turned 32 in September, while Manuel Baum, 38 and one a further quartet of under 40s in top-flight jobs, is keeping Augsburg in the top half of the table. Meanwhile, Thomas Tuchel, 44 and Bosz’s predecessor at Dortmund, waits for his next offer, which may yet come from Bayern. Unless, that is, Heynckes’s appetite for success is fully revitalised.
“His arrival has felt like a lottery win,” said Uli Hoeness, the president of Bayern who called Heynckes out of retirement. When Ancelotti left, the club sat five points behind Dortmund in the table; now they lead their old foes by 13.
On Wednesday night they can dispatch them from the German Cup, and Heynckes takes another step towards repeating history. He won a German Cup, Bundesliga and Champions League treble with Bayern before he retired - or at least said he had retired - in 2013.