This Friday signals the start of the second half of the 44th Bundesliga season, and the reawakening of the German domestic football scene after its long winter slumber.
The programme resumes with a genuine clash of the titans as Bayern Munich travel to face arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund. The match-going public have been treated to a host of thoroughly memorable matches between these two serial rivals for the German championship in recent years, but the forthcoming showdown will be played out to a somewhat unusual background.
Bayern start from the halfway point in the campaign with the unaccustomed task of playing catch-up. The reigning champions lie three points off leaders Werder Bremen and second-placed Schalke 04 , and the pressure is mounting on coach Felix Magath and his men. "There can be no more excuses," Magath declared. "We're determined to play better football than we have done up to now. We've had a very good mid-season period. I'm certain we'll make a good start."
Borussia are hoping for precisely the same thing. The Westphalia outfit last won the league in 2002, but were subsequently obliged to unload a string of stars in the face of a severe financial crisis, forcing the club to rely heavily on a crop of up-and-coming youngsters. This change of philosophy saw the board officially rein in their loftier ambitions for a time, although Borussia returned to the transfer market in vigorous fashion last summer , capturing Paraguay hitman Nelson Valdez, Swiss striker Alexander Frei, South Africa playmaker Steven Pienaar, Ghana's Matthew Amoah and Brazilian ace Tinga, fresh from winning the Copa Libertadores with SC Internacional.
Expectations duly soared in Dortmund, only for Borussia to arrive at the winter break in a disappointing ninth place. Coach Bert van Marwijk departed before Christmas , with 53-year-old former Stuttgart, Hertha Berlin and Wolfsburg chief Jurgen Rober coming in from Partizan Belgrade to take up the reins. The new boss has been asked to lead Borussia to a UEFA Cup qualifying place by the end of term, and despite the stiff target and a crop of injuries, Rober remains optimistic: "You're always under pressure. It's hardly new for me. What matters is starting well."
Record books favour Bayern
The fixture is thus a must-win affair for both clubs, as neither can afford to lose any more ground at this early stage.
The record books point to a Munich win, as the Bavarians have triumphed in 34 of the two sides' 75 Bundesliga meetings to date. Some 24 matches have been drawn, with the men from the Ruhr valley winning on 17 occasions, including a 2-0 success in Munich in the first ever top-flight meeting in 1965/66.
With some justification, the fans can look forward to an incident-packed 90 minutes, at least if recent history is anything to go by. The opening match of the current season was no exception. Dortmund midfielder Sebastian Kehl hobbled out of the action early on following a crunching tackle by Bayern enforcer Hasan Salihamidzic and the game duly ended in a 2-0 home win for the Munich outfit.
The long-term rivalry between the clubs has lost a little of its intensity and edge since a peak in the mid- to late-1990s, when the mind games played ahead of each fixture became the stuff of legend. Dortmund held the upper hand in 1995 and 1996 under coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, who would later guide Bayern to a sparkling array of silverware. Borussia claimed the title in those two seasons, with Bayern finishing sixth and second respectively.
The Bavarians regained the trophy in 1997 with Dortmund in third, before the men in red rattled up a hat-trick of title triumphs in 1999, 2000 and 2001, Borussia trailing in their wake back in fourth, 11th and third place respectively. Dortmund struck back to top the Bundesliga in 2002 with Bayern in third, but the situation was reversed a year later and Munich have set the standard ever since, as financially stricken Dortmund struggled in the lower reaches of the table.
The clubs have met once in European competition, a 1997/8 UEFA Champions League quarter-final showdown. The first leg in Munich ended goalless, with the same score after 90 minutes in the return. Switzerland legend Stephane Chapuisat fired the extra-time goal to see his side through to the next round, where Borussia fell to eventual winners Real Madrid.
True fans tend to nurture stronger memories of a string of fiercely contested Bundesliga encounters. The meeting on matchday 24 in 1998-9 is a case in point, with Dortmund pursuing a UEFA Champions League qualifying place and Bayern in contention for the title.
"That was something special back then," former BVB striker Heiko Herrlich recalls. "You're always totally up for it against Munich. It was a pretty hostile atmosphere." In front of their home crowd, Dortmund led 2-0 with Bayern defender Sammy Kuffour having already been sent for an early bath, when visiting keeper Oliver Kahn launched an astonishing Dracula-style assault on Herrlich's throat following a seemingly innocuous aerial challenge.
"He was trying to wake his team up," Herrlich commented with a wry smile afterwards. "And it worked too. We had an extra man, but we conceded two goals and it ended 2-2. You get that kind of thing in football." The fixture has often featured sendings off and yellow cards aplenty too. The 1-1 draw on matchday 28 in 2000-2001 saw a total of three players given their marching orders and no fewer than 12 go in the book.
The stirring combination of crunching tackles and a seething atmosphere has often been complemented by a rain of goals. Bayern have been in cracking form on home turf in recent years, winning 4-0 in 1997-8, 6-2 in 2000-2001, and by a thumping 5-0 margin in 2004-5. Dortmund last beat Germany's most successful club in a 2-0 triumph in 2003-4. German fans are looking forward to the latest instalment in the long-running battle for supremacy this coming Friday.