For the sixth year running, Borussia Dortmund take part in a grand final to end their season with a highlight. Going up against Eintracht Frankfurt in the DFB-Pokal final on Saturday evening in Berlin’s Olympiastadion, the Black and Yellows are widely expected to win their first major trophy since 2012.
It’s the first time (at least in modern history) Dortmund enter a cup final as distinct favourites over their opposition. Even though the Ruhr side needed to prevail in nail-biting penalty shoot-outs twice themselves, against Union Berlin in the second round and Hertha BSC in the round of 16, underdogs Frankfurt have had an even more adventurous road to Berlin.
Niko Kovac’s side survived shoot-outs against fourth-division side Magdeburg in the first round, Ingolstadt in the second round and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the semi-finals en route to the club’s first appearance in the cup final since the 2005/06 season, when the Eagles lost to Bayern Munich.
Bundesliga fans who watched Frankfurt during the first half of the season will not have been massively surprised to see the Hessians make a deep run in the cup, but, given the team’s horrendous run of form in 2017, it must be considered just that. Ending the Hinrunde in a strong sixth place — just one point behind Dortmund in fourth — Frankfurt had their eyes set on European football in January.
Winning just three of 17 matches in the Rückrunde, however, fewer than all other teams in the division, Frankfurt ended the season in no-man’s-land, coming in 11th. Of course, the team had little to play for during the last few weeks of the campaign, which will have had some effect on showings and results. Dortmund will know better than to expect Frankfurt’s rut in terms of results will take care of things come kick-off at the Olympiastadion.
In fact, the Eagles could be a tough nut to crack, especially now that centre-back Jesus Vallejo has been declared fit. The Real Madrid loanee was one of the discoveries of the season in Germany, earning a place in many pundits’ team of the year. The 20-year-old’s return to the starting XI will stabilise an already fairly stingy defence — Frankfurt shipped only three more goals than Dortmund over the course of the entire season despite their bad run of form in 2017.
Dortmund head coach Thomas Tuchel will surely expect his counterpart to devise a defensive game plan including a massive block of five in front of Hradecky. Add a robust midfield that will surely test the resolve of their opponents in Black and Yellow, and one might expect a close game after all.
The favourites will have to be more clinical than they have been in many games of late, including a 3-1 win in the last Bundesliga meeting between the two sides. More importantly, however, they will have to make sure they shore up some of their own defensive problems.
Both Augsburg and Werder Bremen, the two last opponents in the league, found it far too easy to get behind the last line of defence with simple long balls, often in the space vacated by Dortmund’s right side. Even if Frankfurt do not exactly bring a team of Olympic sprinters, counter-attacks will surely be a focus of their attacking strategy.
Seeing as scoring goals has generally been a problem for the Eagles this season — midfielder Marco Fabian lead the team with only seven strikes in the Bundesliga — one could think their best strategy is to hope for another penalty shoot-out and Dortmund to show more nerves in it.
The Ruhr side has to make sure they can take advantage of their vastly superior big-game experience and scoring an early goal would certainly do just that. Dortmund have showed time and time again this year that they can come back from a knock down, be it in the UEFA Champions League against Real and Benfica or Bayern in the cup semi-final. Even last weekend, they came back twice against Bremen.
In the event of a bad start, Tuchel will likely look to the leaders on his team to radiate confidence, and it seems the 43-year-old will be fortunate to have most of them available. Team captain Marcel Schmelzer, having injured himself in warm-ups for the Bremen game, took part in the final training session and sounded optimistic in the joint press conference on Friday, while Tuchel confirmed Lukasz Piszczek should be available as well.
If there is one player who will draw most of the attention, however, it is Marco Reus. The 27-year-old has famously never won a major trophy with club or country, having tragically missed Germany’s 2014 FIFA World Cup triumph with a last-minute injury. The attacker has looked more determined than ever in recent weeks and, especially, leading the team on the field in Schmelzer’s stead against Bremen. Reus has rarely been at his best in finals and will enter the Olympiastadion with a massive chip on his shoulder.
That should hold true for the entire team despite their status as decisive favourites. Tuchel and Schmelzer declared in the press conference that there is no alternative to winning the cup this year, after considering just making the final an accomplishment in the last years.
Players, staff and fans will likely go into Saturday with a similar feeling: Now or never. Fourth time’s the charm.
Frankfurt: Hradecky; Chandler, Vallejo, Abraham, Oczipka, Tawatha; Hector, Gacinovic; Seferovic, Hrgota, Favian.
Dortmund: Bürki; Bartra, Sokratis, Schmelzer; Piszczek, Sahin, Guerreiro; Dembele, Kagawa, Reus; Aubameyang.