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After the longest winter break of any of the five biggest European leagues, the Bundesliga Rückrunde kicks off with Hoffenheim hosting champions Bayern Munich tonight.
While Bayern will be heavily favoured to defeat Julian Nagelsman’s men, for the first time in a long time, the same can’t be said about the Bundesliga title.
After six long years of Bavarian dominance, Munich enter the second half of the season six points behind Borussia Dortmund in second place.
And while there’s still 17 matches to go, Bundesliga fans can be confident they have a title race on their hands.
Dortmund’s transformation under new coach Lucien Favre has been as impressive as it has been sudden. After two strong years under former coach Thomas Tuchel, Dortmund were in serious danger of falling back to the pack upon the current PSG mentor’s unceremonious departure.
The appointment of coach Peter Bosz – selected ahead of a three-man field of Favre and Peter Stöger – started with a bang but quickly turned sour, with the Dutchman sacked less than six months into his tenure.
Caretaker coach Stöger took over and scraping the club into the Champions League places on goal difference, the Austrian pocketing a €3 million bonus in the process.
With Dortmund topping their group and facing a Harry Kane-less Tottenham in the Champions League Round of 16, it appears to be money well spent.
Favre, noted for his work with young players, may have never won serious silverware but has never had a budget the size of Dortmund’s before. So far, he has brought the team their first period of true Bundesliga dominance since the days of Jurgen Klopp.
A combination of some excellent transfer dealings – how they managed to pick up Barcelona’s Paco Alcacer for €23 million when Alvaro Morata cost Chelsea more than three times as much is still mystifying – as well as promoting young talent has seen the black and yellows fast become one of Europe’s form teams.
A surprise loss to the promoted Fortuna Dusseldorf aside – so far their only defeat of the season – Dortmund have given few indications that their form is likely to slip.
For Dortmund, the big question is whether their young, inexperienced side will have the fortitude to deal with the pressure, particularly if Bayern keep nipping at their ankles.
Only Mario Götze, Shinji Kagawa, Marcel Schmelzer and Łukasz Piszczek remain from Dortmund’s last title-winning season in 2011-12. The Favre-led youth revolution at the club has seen few of those players start regularly in the current season, although their influence will no doubt be prominent in the dressing room.
While Borussia M’gladbach are only three points behind Bayern and nine points of the lead, the title will only have two destinations this season.
The Bundesliga is back this weekend! ????
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— DW Sports (@dw_sports) January 14, 2019
After a sluggish start under new manager Nico Kovac – including a bizarre, Trumpish press conference where Bayern’s President Uli Hoeness and CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge railed against the news media for being ‘mean’ – Munich hit their stride in the final weeks of the campaign.
An injury to winger Franck Ribery – who spent his off-season creating headlines for eating a gold-plated steak with Salt Bae in Dubai – has the potential to undercut Bayern’s resurgence, particularly as fellow ageing wingman Arjen Robben is also on the sidelines.
While Bayern will probably have one eye on their upcoming Champions League tie with Klopp’s Premier League-leading Liverpool FC, they can ill afford to divert their focus from their black and gold rivals.
Although Dortmund’s two-game lead might appear formidable, not all are convinced. Bookmakers have Dortmund as a narrow favourite, while FiveThirtyEight still have Munich as a 65 per cent tip to take out the title, with Dortmund on 33 per cent.
Their trepidation however is probably a tip of the hat to Bayern’s deep pockets and stellar record in recent years, rather than anything they’ve shown on the field so far in 2018-19.
In the end, it could come down to whoever gets a result in the next edition of Der Klassiker.
Dortmund won the previous clash in a 3-2 classic, coming from behind twice to seal it in front of over 80,000 passionate home fans.
Come 8:30pm German time on April 6th, we should have a much better idea of where the Bundesliga title is headed.