Just a couple of weeks ago, Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac suggested his players were enjoying their somewhat unfamiliar role as hunters in this year’s Bundesliga. And on the evidence of events since, it appeared that the then league leaders Borussia Dortmund weren’t enjoying being the prey.
Seven points clear of the champions at the start of February, they now sit second on goal difference after the weekend’s fixtures saw them knocked off top spot for the first time since late September.
Dortmund had led by six points as the German season resumed after the Christmas break, and extended that lead to seven by the first week of February after an impressive win at high-flying RB Leipzig, a 5-1 thrashing of Hannover and a hard-fought draw at a competitive Eintracht Frankfurt – a point that took on extra significance with the champions losing at Bayer Leverkusen on the same day.
Many thought such a lead would be too much for Bayern to overturn, despite Die Roten putting their early season inconsistency behind them. But then things started to go awry for the Lucien Favre’s Black and Yellows in what became a miserable month.
First, they exited the German Cup on penalties after repeatedly failing to kill off Werder Bremen. Then, with skipper Marco Reus out injured and manager Lucien Favre watching from his sick bed they threw away a three-goal lead in the final 15 minutes at home to Hoffenheim.
Next, came their collapse in the final ten minutes of the Champions League first leg against Tottenham, which was followed by a frustrating 0-0 draw with bottom club Nuremberg – who they’d hammered 7-0 in September.
Meanwhile, Bayern had been busy hunting them down, and 36 points out of a possible 39 has seen them go top.
According to Mark Rodden of Bundesliga.com, Reus’s absence for much of February and injury problems at centre-back, where midfielder Julian Weigl often had to deputise, played a part in BVB’s struggles.
“Dortmund,” says the German football expert, “have clearly been feeling the heat.”
Their relative inexperience and the fact that few among their ranks have experienced a successful title tilt could be key factors as the season plays out. “It’s a worry for Dortmund,” says Rodden.
There are a total of ten Bundesliga winners medals in their squad, while Franck Ribery alone is going for his ninth with Bayern and Arjen Robben for his eighth.
The Bavarian giants, looking for a seventh title on the bounce, certainly have the upper hand when it comes to getting the job done.
And while Dortmund can look to experienced campaigners such as Axel Witzel, Thomas Delaney and Mario Gotze, much may depend on how well the likes of Manuel Akanji (23), Dan-Axel Zagadou (19) and Achraf Hakimi (20) in defence hold up as they enter the finishing straight.
And just as crucial perhaps will the form and fitness of captain Reus – who has 14 goals (as many as he managed in the last two season combined) and six assists this season. His leadership and creativity were missed in equal measure in February. His return in recent games more than welcome.
Regaining momentum and composure will be crucial for BVB if they are to capitalise on a Bayern side in a season of transition.
The manner in which they saw off Stuttgart with late goals from Paco Alcacer and Christian Pulisic in Saturday’s 3-1 win should be a confidence booster.
Indeed, the fact that roles have now been reversed, and they can now stalk Bayern might even ease the pressure.
Having just the Bundesliga to focus on, whereas the Bayern are still operating on three fronts, is also in their favour.
That said, Dortmund arguably have the tougher run in, with difficult trips to Hertha Berlin, Bremen and Borussia Monchengladbach to negotiate, not to mention the crunch clash with Bayern in Munich on April 6th.
And as Rodden points out, five of Die Roten’s last nine games are at home and two of them after the Dortmund fixture – against Nuremberg and Hannover – are against teams that could already be relegated by that stage.
That said, Bayern’s last two fixtures – away to Leipzig and at home to Eintracht Frankfurt – are tough on paper, so if the Black and Yellows can keep the race alive at least until then, then a first title win since the 2012 may not be out of the question.