MAY 4 — This week has seen the birth of a new Clasico — a new footballing rivalry that has swiftly become one of the world’s must-see encounters.
For years, the most mouth-watering clashes on the planet have been long-established: Manchester United against Liverpool; AC Milan against Inter Milan; Barcelona against Real Madrid; Celtic against Rangers.
But now there’s another. A new domestic rivalry whose importance is beginning to transcend national borders: Bayern Munich against Borussia Dortmund.
The two sides meet in the Bundesliga tonight (12.30am kick-off Malaysian time) and it will be a celebratory occasion as both come into the game fresh from their triumphant midweek Champions League semi-final successes over Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Bayern have looked like the best team in Europe all season. I wrote as much in this column as far back as September and, if anything, the Bavarian team have only got better since then.
They certainly looked like world-beaters when I went to watch them ruthlessly dispose of Barcelona in Wednesday night’s second leg. From the opening whistle, it was clear that this is a formidable and extremely confident team. All across the field of play, they were strong, composed and comfortable. There was no chink in their armour, no part of the pitch where you thought: Barca have got a chance there.
In the centre of defence, Jerome Boateng and Daniel van Buyten were smooth and unruffled, dealing with every Barcelona attack as though they casually nicking the ball away from eight-year-old boys.
Ahead of them, Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger controlled the central areas, sticking close together in defence to deny any openings to their opposition but then quickly breaking forward to create space when possession was won.
Completing the central spine were Thomas Muller and Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic, both of whom were magnificent in an unfussy, unobtrusive manner. They are very different players — Muller is rangy and energetic while Mandzukic is immensely strong, bearing the resemblance of a human magnet due to his ability to retain possession even when under physical pressure — but they complement each other perfectly.
Then there’s Bayern’s exhilarating width, with captain Philipp Lahm and Dutchman Arjen Robben raiding the right wing with frightening pace and incision while David Alaba and Franck Ribery offer the same threat down the left.
The only player I haven’t mentioned is the goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who was left virtually unemployed thanks to the excellence of his teammates. But on the few occasions Neuer was called into action, he fulfilled his task with the same calm efficiency that oozed throughout his team.
Ah... there is it: that word: “efficiency”. Sooner or later, any Englishman’s account of a German football team has to contain the word “efficient”, which has become the Briton’s favoured stereotype for Germanic culture.
And it’s true, Bayern were ruthlessly efficient. There’s nothing unusual in their defensive shape of 4-2-3-1, a formation which is employed by many teams, but Bayern’s defensive execution just looked much more disciplined and solid than anyone else.
There were no gaps for Barca to exploit, with Bayern’s players moving as a coherent unit in an organised and wholly co-ordinated manner to close down the space in front of their penalty area. Little wonder they’ve only conceded 14 goals in 31 league games this season.
However, simply calling Bayern “efficient” would be a gross disservice to their sparkling attacking play. Defensively, it is an appropriate adjective. But when they come forward, their ability to attack with pace, intent and incision makes them thrilling to watch. German teams, according to the English stereotype, are not supposed to be exciting: this Bayern team trample all over that myth. They are a wonderful team.
Dortmund aren’t too shabby either. Although the final stages of their second leg at Madrid became unnecessarily scary after the Spanish side scored twice in the space of five minutes to leave themselves within one more goal of the final, the gap in quality between the two teams was far greater than the eventual aggregate scoreline of 4-3 suggested.
Over the 180 minutes of the tie, I reckon Dortmund were the better team for 145. Madrid had the better of the 10 minutes before half-time in the first leg, the opening quarter-hour of the second leg and then the crazy final 10 minutes. Other than that, though, Dortmund were in full control and could have easily scored more than their four goals.
Although they line up with a similar 4-2-3-1 formation and execute counter-attacks with comparable pace and precision, Dortmund are a very different team to Bayern. They are much looser, more creative, more open — rather befitting the markedly contrasting personalities of the two coaches, Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp and Bayern’s Jupp Heynckes.
While Bayern are more predictable — you know what’s coming but are still powerless to stop it — Dortmund’s attacking players are capable of surprising you with their inventive approach play, which appears more off-the-cuff than it probably is.
Dortmund’s playmaker Ilkay Gundogan is a very different central midfielder from Schweinsteiger, for example — one is elusive and subtle where the other is powerful and relentless — while the wing play of Marco Reus relies far more on nimble trickery rather than the sheer explosive pace of Ribery or Robben.
But Dortmund are another fantastic team and the clash of styles in the Wembley final later this month could be a treat to behold, especially if Dortmund play with the attacking abandon that made their first-leg performance over Madrid so exhilarating.
Before then, though, there’s today’s Bundesliga meeting between the two teams. As a dress rehearsal for the Champions League final, it might actually be something of a let-down. Both camps could well be suffering from a hangover (perhaps literally) after their European exertions, and it would be a surprise to see either manager send out anything like their strongest 11.
Make no mistake, though: these two teams deserve to be in the Champions League final. They are the best teams in the world right now. And what’s more, given the relative youth of their squads and the healthy state of their finances, they could well be here to stay.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.