DORTMUND, Germany — The crowd reverted to benign applause at the sidestreet bar Viertelliebe, a stone’s throw away from the Borussia Dortmund’s vaunted Wastfalenstadion, as referee Marco Fritz’s final whistle at the Olympiastadion sealed Bayern Munich’s first loss of the season on Friday night.
The crowd at the outskirts of Dortmund’s city-centre did not turn too euphoric although they had just witnessed on the many screens their rivals deservedly lose against a well-organised and ruthless Hertha Berlin — which was made even more significant due to the fact that the Bavarian outfit were looking to bounce back from Tuesday’s 1-1 draw against Augsburg, fielding a stronger line-up this time.
But after six years of inescapable dominance by the Bavarian powerhouse, the prospect of moving to the top of the table after six matchdays isn’t quite getting the juices flowing just yet in Dortmund, despite BVB’s emphatic 7-0 win over FC Nurnberg on Wednesday. The newly-promoted side was simply too naive and too weak in order to serve as a measuring stick.
The Bundesliga Topspiel between Bayer Leverkusen and Dortmund, on the other hand, has now become an occasion for the Ruhr side to make a statement while Bayern are now showing some vulnerability.
It looked as though Bayern Munich were going to run away with Championship yet again in this still very young season (and still might) but Lucien Favre’s men have a chance to raise rare hopes of a title race in the German top flight.
The Deutsche Fussball Liga are marketing the Bundesliga abroad as “football as it’s meant to be,” advertising the packed arenas and the splendid atmosphere. Football, however, is first and foremost meant to be exciting and that entails a close race for the Championship.
Dortmund’s faithful are also cautious not least because they saw their team topping the league table in the previous campaign until Matchday 10 before they crashed and burned under Peter Bosz.
Yet, this time Dortmund look like they will only improve from here on out under Favre rather than collapse. And if Bayern run into trouble under their new head coach Nico Kovac, there won’t be Jupp Heynckes coming back from retirement to bail them out this time.
The game against Leverkusen will show whether Favre has drawn the right conclusions from recent weeks that saw Dortmund struggle in a fortunate 1-0 win away to Club Brugge in the Champions League and a flattering 1-1 draw against a better Hoffenheim side — or whether the 7-0 over Nurnberg was merely a fluky flash in the pan.
Heiko Herrlich’s men have picked up three consecutive wins in the Bundesliga and Europa League, dismantling Mainz 05 (1-0), Ludogorez Razgrad (3-2) and Fortuna Dusseldorf (2-1) after starting the season on two losses. Many experts had initially tipped Bayer to be one of the favourites to win the league after keeping their squad together in the summer but apart from 19-year-old Kai Havartz’s individual brilliance in the attacking midfield, very little has clicked for die Werkself thus far.
Nevertheless, Dortmund captain Marco Reus warned on Wednesday night that Saturday’s game is not to be taken lightly. He told the assembled reporters: “We are aware of the fact that Nurnberg didn’t push us to our limit and that the match against Leverkusen will be very tough. They are on the up after winning their last three games, including the [Europa] League, and I’m sure that it will be another nail-biter.”
And Favre did not take long to plead for more time fresh off the 7-0 victory for him and his players to learn more about themselves and to develop. The 60-year-old was well in his rights to do that after seeing Real Madrid loanee Achraf Hakimi make his debut at the right-back position, 19-year-old centre-back Dan-Axel Zagadou make his first appearance of the season for the suspended Abdou Diallo and Bruun Larsen score his very first goal for the Black and Yellows.
Hakimi, who scored with his very first shot on goal as a right-back in the second half on Wednesday, has hinted with a strong performance at things that are yet to come. He seemingly impressed Favre enough to earn another start at left-back this time, a position that he has filled for Morocco at the World Cup, while former team captain Marcel Schmelzer will be rested.
Dortmund will also have to make do without Omer Toprak (injured), Mario Gotze (illness) and Shinji Kagawa (dropped for midfielder Marius Wolf), while Favre still has to understand how to best implement midfielder Julian Weigl next to Axel Witsel, Thomas Delaney or Mahmoud Dahoud. Saturday’s match should also deliver more insight into how BVB fare with newly signed striker Paco Alcacer, who joined from Barcelona during the summer and picked up a muscular injury during a promising 15-minute cameo in a 3-1 over Eintracht Frankfurt a fortnight ago.
In the meantime, Favre had to realise that neither Gotze, Maximilian Philipp, Wolf or Reus are viable options upfront while 19-year-old Swedish striker Alexander Isak has been completely excluded of any planning.
BVB are visibly in the process of building a new side with many young talents with the Swiss coach hoping that his constant alterations during a crammed schedule pay off every three days. Yet, together with Werder Bremen, Juventus and Chelsea, they are one of the few teams of Europe’s top five leagues to remain unbeaten.
Saturday’s match against Leverkusen will show if die Schwarzgelben are already far enough in their development to give Bayern Munich a run for their money and if they can turn mild cheers into a louder buzz in Dortmund’s bars when the latter are to once again drop points.