This season was supposed to be Borussia Dortmund’s for the taking. Title rivals and six-time incumbents Bayern Munich had endured a tricky opening half of the season, allowing BVB to top the table for the first 24 weeks. On April 27, Dortmund hosted their fierce local rivals (and shock relegation candidates) Schalke, knowing that a win would put them two points clear of the Bavarians in the race for the trophy.
However, the Rivierderby didn’t quite go to plan for Dortmund.
After Mario Gotze’s excellent header to score the opening goal, Schalke drew level through a penalty, called from a highly controversial handball decision. Then, the wheels started to fall off for the hosts. Captain Marco Reus and Marius Wolf were both shown straight red cards for dangerous tackles (both, incidentally, on the same ankle of Suat Serdar, five minutes apart), and Dortmund capitulated.
Despite having 70 percent possession, manager Lucien Favre’s men gave up points from a winning position, a trait for which they were also guilty the following week when they ceded a two-goal lead to Werder Bremen.
In the moments after the Rivierderby, Favre was furious. The 61-year-old Swiss felt the contentious handball call against Julien Weigl, awarded after a VAR review, was the catalyst for his side’s demise.
"Football is making itself a laughing stock," Favre said. “What do they want players to do, cut their arms off?"
Bayern were set to face relegated Nurnberg the following day, which would allow them to open up a four-point lead at the top, with three matchdays remaining.
“The title race is over,” Favre said in frustration.
However, it turns out that the title race is still very much alive. Bayern could only muster a draw at Nurnberg the following day, and they were also held by RB Leipzig last weekend. It means that, going into the final day of the season on Saturday, Bayern hold a slender and surmountable two-point lead at the summit.
It’s the first time since 2010 that the Bundesliga title race has gone down to the final day, and it’s a much tighter race this time around. Back then, not only did Schalke need to win their match on the last day at Mainz, but they needed a Bayern loss and a 17-goal swing to edge it on goal difference. Bayern ended up winning comfortably and Schalke could only draw their final game.
This Saturday, the permutations are slightly more favorable for Bayern’s challenger, but it is still a daunting task. Dortmund must beat Borussia Monchengladbach and hope that Eintracht Frankfurt can pull off a rare win at the Allianz Arena. If Frankfurt and Bayern draw, Dortmund will need to win their match by 17 goals.
Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke fueled the anticipation by pointing out that it is now Bayern’s title to lose. “We have been under brutal pressure, but now the pressure is heading south,” he said. “Bayern have it all to lose, we can only win.”
Adding to the pressure is the strange quirk that Bayern have never won a title at the Allianz Arena: The last title they secured on home soil came on the final day of the 1999-00 season at their old Olympiastadion.
They have won it nine times since — either away or while not playing — and their failure to capture the title on the road in Leipzig last weekend may be a good omen for the Black and Yellow.
Dortmund may also be encouraged by the caliber of Bayern’s opponent: Eintracht defeated Bayern in the DFB-Pokal final last season. The shock defeat certainly made an impression on Bayern, who hired manager Niko Kovac as their own shortly afterward.
Frankfurt are also fighting their own historic battle. They are one point below the Champions League spots and looking to qualify for the competition for the first time since 1960. Their recent Europa League semifinal exit to Chelsea may be an indication of their ambition.
However, it cannot be denied that Bayern are strong favorites in their matchup. They haven’t lost at home in the league since October and have won their last nine home league meetings with Frankfurt, dating back to 2010. And although Bayern have dropped four points in their last three outings, Eintracht are winless in six in all competitions.
Dortmund, meanwhile, are narrow favorites to win on the road at Borussia Monchengladbach, whom they have beaten in each of their last seven meetings. BVB have only lost once on the final day in the last five seasons, too. Additionally, former Gladbach star Reus has a history of upsetting his old club; he has scored in each of his last three visits to Borussia-Park.
But it is far from given that they will secure the necessary three points to potentially upset the reigning champions. Die Fohlen are only a single point ahead of Frankfurt and tenuously holding onto fourth place — a position they will not give up without a fight.
Furthermore, Dortmund’s recent history of giving up leads makes them very unpredictable. There were two injury-time goals in their 3-2 win over Fortuna Dusseldorf last weekend and they came perilously close to surrendering two points.
Yet it is this kind of unpredictability that makes the final day of Bundesliga so exciting. No one would have expected Bayern to drop points in recent weeks. Equally, no one would have expected Dortmund to still be in the fight following their Revierderby failure.
It has been a strange season in Germany, where Schalke have narrowly staved off relegation, where Eintracht are unexpectedly fighting for Champions League soccer and where Dortmund have conspired against themselves to throw away the nine-point lead they held in December.
The previous rounds suggest the final day may be good for an unforeseen twist or two.
If Dortmund do fail to leapfrog their title rivals, the silver lining is that progress they have made on last year. They have 18 more points than they did at this point last season and are giving the Bavarians a closer title fight than they are used to.
“We have to keep believing,” Dortmund winger and United States star Christian Pulisic said in the buildup to Matchday 34.
“The manager keeps telling us that it’s possible. We’ll see what happens.”
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