Don't expect Bayern and Borussia Dortmund to go all-out in Der Klassiker
Bayern Munich lost their second game of the Bundesliga season on Tuesday 1-0 away to TSG Hoffenheim, but they almost welcomed the unusual experience as a useful wake-up call. "It was an important sign for us, to show us that we're nearly half as good being as passive [as we were in the first half]," defender Mats Hummels said while raising a metaphorical index finger.
Borussia Dortmund, by contrast, ran out 3-0 winners at home to Hamburger SV, yet found plenty of reasons to fault themselves. "I'm very worried about our schedule in light of all the energy we expended today," Thomas Tuchel said. The rather downbeat coach added that "a critical analysis" of BVB's failure to take their chances earlier and concede too many opportunities ("a roller coaster ride") would follow.
If the counterintuitive reactions to these two results show anything, it's surely that Bayern and Dortmund, facing off Saturday in the biggest game of the Bundesliga calendar, operate on their own terms. The table might not adequately reflect it right now -- Dortmund are only fourth -- but the two most domineering German clubs of the decade can afford to look beyond individual successes or setbacks, secure in the knowledge that the big picture is just fine.
After a wobbly start, Bayern will win the Bundesliga for the fifth time in a row and are still in the running for two more big trophies. After a wobbly start of their own, Dortmund will qualify for the Champions League and are still in the running for two more big trophies. Saturday's meeting at the Allianz Arena is slightly more important, points-wise, to Dortmund -- they want to make up ground on RB Leipzig and TSG Hoffenheim -- but the scoreline has relatively little bearing on either club's targets for the season.
For the fifth year running, the emotional pull of the game marketed as "Der Klassiker" abroad by the league is rather diminished by Bayern's unassailable 15-point lead. And there's no sign of any verbal skirmishes or attempts to lure yet another key BVB player south to add a bit of spice to proceedings this year, either.
If a proper football rivalry is defined by the deep-seated need to not just win but exact hurt on the enemy, you won't find much of it Saturday night. But that is not to say the game is devoid of meaning -- not at all. Rather, its importance is not wrapped up in the identity of the opponents. Both teams pursue aims that exist wholly independent of each other. There's no need to pretend otherwise.
Bayern are of course only interested in keeping the sense of rhythm and momentum they have picked up in February. Their eye is firmly on the Champions League quarterfinal first leg against Real Madrid in a week's time; Dortmund on Saturday is little more than a dress rehearsal for the biggest game of their season yet.
The Bavarians' luxurious lead in the table has given Carlo Ancelotti the opportunity to rotate his players and take into account the wishes of his superiors. They want prodigies Joshua Kimmich, Kingsley Coman and Renato Sanches to get more game time to help their development. Unlike his predecessor Pep Guardiola, who was extremely demanding of his squad in every practice session and coached youngsters with particular fervour -- so much that one privately complained of leaving the training pitch "with smoke coming out of my ears" each day -- the Italian's more hands-off approach makes it harder for budding stars to progress unless they're involved in competitive matches.
On Tuesday, Bayern's lineup reflected Ancelotti's wider priorities, and for once, the champions paid the price. Renato Sanches' lack of composure on the ball was masterfully exploited by Hoffenheim in the buildup to the winning goal by Andrej Kramaric (and aided by Sven Ullreich in the Bayern goal), but Ancelotti would have nevertheless been extremely pleased by Bayern's reaction in the second half. Many sides, including Bayern teams in the not-so distant past, might have decided it wasn't going to be their night -- bigger fish to fry and all of that -- but the away team chased an equaliser as if their lives depended on it. "You could see what happens if we step on it in the second half," Hummels noted approvingly.
Bayern will want to show that hunger again Saturday while hoping that no more important players pick up injuries. (Douglas Costa and Thomas Muller are nursing knocks, and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is still doubtful for the Madrid game). The fact that Dortmund will provide the opposition is almost immaterial at this stage.
Tuchel will also think beyond the trip to Bavaria. Tuesday's mouth-watering clash with AS Monaco presents a huge opportunity to underline their progress as a club and team. They might not be able to challenge Bayern's supremacy over 34 rounds, but success in Europe -- a semifinal appearance or maybe more -- would help Tuchel and the board settle their atmospheric differences and provide a huge confidence for a side that will only get better if they can keep their main players.
The BVB coach might even be tempted to rest the odd regular at the Allianz Arena -- his line about "too much effort" hinted at such measures -- because Dortmund don't have that much to gain. Three points away to Bayern would be an unexpected boost in their campaign to dislodge Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig and carry some symbolic significance -- just as the 1-0 home win over Ancelotti's men did back in November -- but it won't be decisive either way.
Instead, Tuchel will regard the game Saturday in similar terms to his opposite number, namely as a test run. Dortmund have to find more balance and compactness in the centre in order to get past Monaco, and they'll have to be more clinical in front of goal. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's finishing wasn't up to scratch vs. Hamburg. The Bayern game will provide an opportunity for the Gabon international, who was fined by Dortmund for his masked celebration stunt, to rediscover his calmness in front of goal.
In pure footballing terms, there will be enough collective and individual quality on show to make for a compelling spectacle, but for raw emotions and a fevered do-or-die atmosphere, we'll all have to wait three weeks. That's when Dortmund will visit again to take on Bayern in the DFB Pokal semifinal.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.