At the start of the 2014/15 Bundesliga campaign, few pundits or supporters would have predicted anything other than both Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund competing to chase FC Bayern as usual in the Champions League places come the winterpause. That didn’t come close to happening as the well documented struggles of BvB have brought a heap of questions surrounding the future of Germany’s second biggest club since the turn of the decade.
In their first Hinrunde without Robert Lewandowski things went terribly for Dortmund, who were riddled by injuries that exposed their depth immensely. Marco Reus saw his pre-World Cup injury struggles continue and amongst others missing time, the results just didn’t come on a consistent basis to the point that after the 17 game mark Dortmund enter the second half of the season tied for last place with SC Freiburg.
It should be noted that the Bundesliga struggles were coupled with Champions League success on many levels for the club, who again will be in the Round of 16 where they have their best chance of salvaging the season should they find a way to upset Juventus. But the problems domestically have Jürgen Klopp focused on survival rather than challenging their longtime rivals in Bayern, which has been strange for those who have followed the league since the manager has taken over Dortmund where nothing besides success has been experienced by their supporters.
Now with rumours coming out on a daily basis surrounding stars Mats Hummels and the aforementioned Reus, Dortmund need to find answers fast when it comes to the direction they will be headed in the Bundesliga this season. Needing wins fast, a trip to Leverkusen couldn’t come at a worse time when they need three points, but a victory over a big club could be exactly what the doctor ordered (no Bayer pharmaceutical pun intended) for Klopp to bring some belief to a squad that has been through plenty already this season in terms of adversity.
On the other side of the coin, Bayer Leverkusen have been having an expected season where the consistently just out of the title picture club are yet again in third place with a 7-7-3 record over the Hinrunde. That mark puts them in a tight Champions League qualification race that features Gladbach (27 points, 4th), Schalke (27 points, 5th), Augsburg (27 points, 6th), Hoffenheim (26 points, 7th), and unlikely contenders Hannover 96 (24 points, 8th).
In Europe things have went as usual for Leverkusen, a mix of strong results and disappointing ones that led to the club losing out on winning their group on the final matchday to finish second in gaining a Round of 16 spot. That final matchday failure was a costly one, as Bayer will now take on 2013/14 La Liga champions and Champions League runner ups in Atletico Madrid in the first knockout round. Unlikely to make a Champions League run, manager Roger Schmidt’s main goal following the winterpause will be to attain European qualification for another season in what is one of the tightest Top 4 races in recent Bundesliga history. Making matches like Saturday night’s at the BayArena very important with every weekend likely to change the final two Champions League places behind frontrunners in Bayern and Wolfsburg.
Luckily for Schmidt, the home side has an early season result against Dortmund to rely on in which they grabbed an away victory to kick off the year with goals in the first and final minute to begin the BvB tailspin. That match began all of the problems in Dortmund and reprising that now famous result will be paramount to the hosts maintaining their status as one of the favourites for the Top 4 going into the Rückrunde as home points will be one of the biggest factors for the group of clubs racing for the 2015/16 Champions League qualification spots.
As for Klopp and Dortmund, the first match of the second half of the season is a chance to prove that after six weeks to regroup and gain composure following difficult times that this squad can still turn things around. Only 12 points back of Gladbach, the Champions League is still a possible dream despite being a distant one. Taking things one step at a time will be the mission and an away match against the third place Leverkusen will be a difficult first test that Klopp will have his players motivated for. If they can win, and get out of the relegation zone right out of the opening weekend, it goes without saying that the spirits inside of the Dortmund squad will be greatly boosted by avenging their 2-0 defeat from August.
Whoever earns the spoils on Saturday will be getting needed momentum for different reasons at the BayArena. A draw is likely to disappoint both clubs, and the significance of a win should lead to a rematch that provides plenty of drama and excitement. For Leverkusen, a repeat of the 2-0 win from the beginning of the season could catapult them into the driver’s seat for third place while a Dortmund away victory would bring some needed certainty in uncertain times for Klopp’s side. When the dust settles on Saturday night the narrative of the opening month of the Rückrunde will be much clearer for both clubs, the Bundesliga world will be tuning in to see what direction the two sides will be headed going into February in what could be the match of the weekend at the BayArena.
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