DORTMUND FIGHTING NOT TO BE LEFT BEHIND
Borussia Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke is rarely short of a soundbite, especially when it comes to sworn Bundesliga enemies Bayern Munich.
Now under the esteemed Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern lead Germany's top flight in their pursuit of a fifth-straight title and are unbeaten in 10 matches this season. Nevertheless, Watzke is not entirely impressed.
"Bayern play a little bit different this season," he told Bild at the start of this month. "They are not that much of a machine as in the past."
As much as this might sound like pure partisanship, Watzke does have a point.
Bayern travel to Signal Iduna Park for the latest instalment of Der Klassiker with question marks surrounding them and they will start the match in second if surprise package RB Leipzig come through with a positive result at Bayer Leverkusen on Friday.
Following Pep Guardiola's obsessive attention to detail in all areas from tactical intricacies to - if Samir Nasri is to be believed - what time his players should be going to bed and precisely what they should not be doing there, Ancelotti was sold in many quarters as a liberating, freeing influence who could inspire the best German team of their era to greater heights.
However, with the shackles off, Bayern have too often appeared lethargic and lacking in direction, with the 1-1 draw at home to Hoffenheim before the international break standing as the latest example of their malaise.
Uli Hoeness' seemingly imminent return as club president and speculation over contract extensions for seasoned professionals such as Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Xabi Alonso all add to a sense of benign empire in Bavaria.
Thomas Tuchel's bright young things and Bundesliga top scorers should be well placed to land a telling blow this weekend, but their comparatively racy and sleek machine has also failed to run smoothly up until this point.
Dortmund are six points behind Bayern in fifth having won only half of their league games this season. The bottom two, Ingolstadt and Hamburg have four points and no wins between them from 20 attempts but managed to put a combined five goals past BVB's leaky defence.
Just two clean sheets in the league this season tell their own story and Germany centre-back Mats Hummels' decision to cross the divide looks like one of Bayern's most damaging pieces of pilfering at their rivals' expense.
Injuries have also played a part – Marco Reus' comeback will have to wait for another day and he has enjoyed plenty of company in the treatment room – but at their best Dortmund have been utterly dazzling.
Before their slump kicked in, Tuchel's men thumped Legia Warsaw 6-0 in the Champions League, dispatched Darmstadt by the same scoreline in the Bundesliga and then bedazzled Wolfsburg 5-1 - all in the space of six heady September days.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang heads the scoring charts ahead of that other yellow and black prodigal son in the Bayern ranks, Robert Lewandowski, and in Christian Pulisic, Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor, Tuchel boasts three of the finest teenage talents in world football.
On Saturday, they must perform as the sum of their parts or face a long way back in a title tussle that could be played out across more than two fronts.
When Bayern were hitting new levels of excellence under Jupp Heynckes and Guardiola, while stealing Dortmund's best players, coming off second best was one thing.
To fall nine points behind a Bayern side seemingly going through the motions with injury woes of their own would be as sapping as any setback Dortmund have suffered in German football's most compelling rivalry of the modern era.
THE NUMBERS GAME
Saturday's showdown pits two of the finest strikers in world football against one another. Here's how Aubameyang and Lewandowski measure up.
- Dortmund's Aubameyang leads the way this season, with 11 goals in just nine Bundesliga games. Lewandowski's return is an entirely respectable seven in 10 and he scored five more than Aubameyang last term, with his 32 appearances yielding 30 goals.
- Lewandowski has not fallen behind for a lack of trying and has unleashed 13 more shots on goal than his rival, with 44 compared to 31. The upshot is Aubameyang's shot conversion rate of 35.5 per cent far outstrips the Poland star's 15.9 per cent.
- There is enough evidence to suggest Lewandowski is making up for a relative lack of goals with his overall contribution. The Bayern man has created more chances, attempted more dribbles and supplied one more assist than Aubameyang this season.
- Dortmund's Aubameyang is arguably more focused on events in the penalty area this season. Last time around, he outstripped Lewandowski in assists by five to two, creating 28 chances to 22.
- Despite Aubameyang's reputation as a quicksilver opponent, the more traditional number nine is a far more liberal dribbler. Lewandowski has 32 dribbles to the Gabon international's 21 this year and he attempted more than double the amount of runs with the ball returned by Dortmund's main attacking threat last term (97 to 43).
"Nine points behind sounds frightening," he said. "We would love to free ourselves of that [pressure], but it isn't possible.
"We need lots of bravery tomorrow - that will be the key to the game. We need an intensity in our play, We need a lot of courage and we have to have compactness at every given moment.
"There will be some players playing tomorrow who haven't found their rhythm yet.
"[Reus'] injury came out of nowhere, it might be because of his boots. I was ready to throw him into an intense game.
"Sebastian Rode has problems with his scar after surgery and there is a big question mark over Raphael Guerreiro.
"Guerreiro has muscular problems. He trained well, it might be down to the strains of the international break."
"Franck Ribery is ready. He trained very well, he is in a good condition and he is able to play. He is important for the team with his experience and quality.
"Dortmund have a very good team playing a high intensity. They have an offensive identity, very fast players. So it's normal they have problems in the defence sometimes.
"Dortmund want to show their identity. We have to play our game. Thomas Tuchel is a very good manager, because Dortmund have a very clear identity.
"4-3-3 is an option, 4-4-2 is an option, 4-2-3-1 as well. We have many options. We have to be focused, in a good condition. We need to be 100 per cent."