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The Champions League Final: Fünf brennende Fragen

Five burning questions on Saturday's all-German Champions League final

The glory of the German language is that it has a word for everything. When the original creators of English knocked off for the day —

JAMES: I don’t know, Ted, three syllables feels like a lot.

TED: Right you are, James. Let’s call it a language and play lawn wickets.

— the world’s first Germans just straightened their wigs and kept right on word-forging.

THORSTEN: What should we call “the pleasurable sadness of watching a sailboat pass by a stone bridge on the day before an election”?

SIEGLINDE: Frühdemocratikpüffbootsteinbrucktraurigkeit. Next.

THORSTEN: What about “the desire to stop creating a language in order to play a game of genteel yard sports”?

SIEGLINDE: Why would we even need that concept …

THORSTEN: Ha! True. No one would ever feel that.

SIEGLINDE: Might as well be thorough, though.

THORSTEN: Himmelkeinsprechenwicketswunch?

SIEGLINDE: Golden. Next.

So it’s disconcerting that the Oxford-Duden German Dictionary appears to contain not a single entry corresponding to “the strange curiosity one feels regarding the 2013 Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the first all-German European Cup final in history, which will be played Saturday at 2:45 p.m. ET at Wembley Stadium in London, and which feels oddly compelling despite the fact that the teams involved have played one another approximately 345 times in the Bundesliga this season.” I mean, you’d think they’d be all over that, right? Bayern is clearly the better team and the overwhelming favorite to win, but Dortmund is weird and fun and unpredictable enough that you can’t ever write them off. So the match is simultaneously a foregone conclusion and a completely exciting prospect. It’s interesting … German-word-level interesting. At least it should be.

Well, what the Germans won’t do for us we shall do for ourselves, as Kevin Acura used to say. Here are my five red-hot questions heading into the Champions League final.

1. Seriously, Bayern is going to win this, right?

Oh, Christ yes. Bayern is the best team in the world, a ludicrously overpowered doom brigade of talent — Mario Mandžukić, Thomas Müller, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Mario Gomez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Manuel Neuer, I could go on if I weren’t out of breath — that’s fresh off obliterating Barcelona 7-0 aggregate in the Champions League semis. In case you slept through that round, let’s skim the key points again. Barcelona. 7-0. Bayern is awesome.1

“But wait!” you say. “Sure, Bayern is imposing, but Dortmund is cool, young, and exciting to watch, and they’ve got maybe the best striker in socks right now, Robert Lewandowski, who scored four goals against Real Madrid in the first leg of Dortmund’s own La Liga–powerhouse-decimating Champions League semifinal.” And normally, I’d say you make a good point. BVB2 won the Bundesliga in 2011 and 2012, and they had another great season this year — just look at their line from the league table. It’s impressive whichever way you slice it:

2013: 2nd place, 19W, 9D, 6L, 81GF, 42GA, +39GD, 66 pts

The problem is that Bayern’s line is this:

2013: 1st place, 29W, 4D, 1L, 98GF, 18GA, +80GD, 91 pts

I mean. Their goal differential was +80. They beat the runner-up — a Champions League finalist! — by 25 points. In England, the distance between first-place Manchester United and Everton was only 26 points, and Everton finished sixth, and Manchester United had an easy season. And OK, different league, no real comparison, but Bayern spent its domestic season lapping a field that Dortmund inconveniently happened to be part of. Sorry for the advanced analysis here, but it’s just very hard to win against a team that both scores and defends as well as Bayern does. It’s like playing Galaga. Remember Galaga? You could nab every power-up in the game, you could clear level after level, but those aliens were going to keep munching their way toward you forever, like a typewriter ribbon that never ran out. (Remember typewriters?) Bayern is the endless loop of aliens; Dortmund is a kid who’s only got so many quarters. You can root for the kid, but be realistic.

Dortmund did manage to draw 1-1 against Bayern in two previous matches this year, but one of those was a meaningless late-season league game just three weeks ago. In the teams’ only meeting that really super-mattered, a DFB Cup quarterfinal in February, Bayern basically smothered Dortmund to death, holding them to one shot on goal in a 1-0 win that would have been 2-0 if Kroos hadn’t missed an open goal. The stakes will be higher Saturday, and if it matters, Bayern will have an extra incentive to win — not only did they lose at this stage to Chelsea last year, Saturday’s game is the last Champions League match for their manager, the musteline-haired Jupp Heynckes, who’s being gently euthanized to make room for Pep Guardiola next season.

Dortmund’s only chance in this match may be for their thrillingly talented 20-year-old midfielder, Mario Götze, to —

Whoops, no, sorry! Götze’s not playing. Twinged his hamstring against Real Madrid. The next time he takes a pitch, he’ll be playing for Bayern Munich, where he’s transferring after the season, because the world is Galaga, and it does what it does.

2. Will Lewandowski be effective without Götze?

Probably? Lewandowski is just fairly good at soccer, you guys. He gets more sentences written about him that include the words “scored four times on Wednesday” than most people.

He’s the second-leading scorer in both the Bundesliga (behind Stefan Kießling) and the Champions League (behind Cristiano Ronaldo). The last time he played in a major final against Bayern, in last season’s DFB Cup final, he got a hat trick.3 At 24, Lewandowski is a virtually undefendable combination of size, agility, and quickness; give him six inches of breathing room in the area, and he will peel off moves like this:

On the other hand, Bayern’s defense is … what’s the opposite of breathing room? They’re going to try to cut Lewandowski off from the team, chloroform him into oblivion, and drive off with him in the trunk.4 And that’s where Götze’s absence hurts.

Almost more than with his playmaking abilities, Götze helps Lewandowski simply by being a disruptive force in the forward part of the pitch; Götze can score (24 goals this season) and he can pick out dangerous passes (14 assists), so he tends to throw defenses into a minor tizzy wherever he goes on the pitch. They can’t ignore him, ever, which creates little bubbles of inattention or poor spacing that Lewandowski and whoever’s trying to get him the ball can exploit. And then, Götze’s link-up play is invaluable in its own right: Of Lewandowski’s four goals in that semifinal game against Madrid, Götze created the first with a cross from the left wing and made the pass that led to the penalty that Lewandowski converted for the fourth. Lewandowski would be a threat if it were 1 vs. 11, but not having Götze in the squad hurts Dortmund’s chances, tomorrow and forever.

Speaking of which … there’s a good chance Lewandowski will also be leaving Dortmund for a bigger payday next season, and the rumor’s going around that he’ll be joining Götze in Munich. Earth, Galaga, etc. There’s a German word for this, and it’s Laserblgätzesterpfennigscheiße, probably.

3. So does Dortmund have any kind of a chance?

I’m glad you asked! The great thing about Dortmund is that they don’t strictly make sense. In the going-on-five-years since Jürgen Klopp left Mainz 05 to manage the club, it’s gone from a midtable makeweight to a multiple-trophy-winning Bundesliga powerhouse. Look at this year-by-year breakdown:

• 2007-08: (year before Klopp arrived): 13th place in the Bundesliga

• 2008-09: (Klopp’s first season): Sixth place in the Bundesliga, won the DFL-Supercup

• 2009-10: Fifth place in the Bundesliga

• 2010-11: Won the Bundesliga, Klopp named German Football Manager of the Year

• 2011-12: Won the Bundesliga, won the DFB Cup, went 28 matches unbeaten, broke Bundesliga record for points in a season with 81,5 Klopp again named German Football Manager of the Year

• 2012-13: One game away from being champions of Europe

Dortmund has done this while spending next to nothing on transfers: Götze was a product of the youth academy; Lewandowski cost around €4.5 million. Their most expensive purchase of the last couple of seasons, Marco Reus, cost €17 million (and is worth it); since buying him from Borussia Monchengladbach last January, they’ve sold Lucas Barrios to Guangzhou Evergrande for €8.5 million and Ivan Perisic to Wolfsburg for €8 million. Götze’s move to Munich will bring in €37 million. They’ve been winning without spending money6 and without internationally recognizable stars. That happens sometimes in soccer, but generally it’s a Europa League–level team miraculously finishing in third, or Everton finishing between sixth and 11th for 20 consecutive seasons. What Dortmund has accomplished — two championships, a record-breaking point total, and a domestic double in two seasons — is just crazy.

How crazy? Exhibit A: Thanks to Klopp, Jürgen Klinsmann is no longer even the best soccer manager whose name starts with “Jürgen Kl.” Exhibit B: Against Malaga in the Champions League quarterfinals this April, Dortmund scored twice in stoppage time to advance, a win so shocking that it launched Malaga’s billionaire owner into one of the most spectacular Twitter tantrums of all time. Dortmund made a Qatari sheikh feel like a victim. At soccer. When these guys play, you can’t rule out anything.

On paper, Bayern should win. But strange things sometimes happen when Dortmund plays. This is a matchup of great coaching and world-annihilating talent (Bayern) vs. great coaching, very good talent, and maybe some sort of dimensional rift or Harry Potter–style magic (Dortmund). Who knows what could happen?

If Dortmund does manage to win, I’m sure it will all seem so logical in retrospect — oh, sure, they switched from 4-4-1-1 to 4-5-1 and played İlkay Gündoğan as a holding midfielder, that sort of thing. You and I will know the truth.

4. How should Dortmund defend Arjen Robben?

Bayern Munich does absolutely everything well, but Arjen Robben does only two things well. One of them is to hurl himself to the ground and curl into a taut ball of imaginary suffering. The other is to cut inside from the right and shoot with his left foot. Cutting inside from the right and shooting with his left foot is the only move Arjen Robben has. He has never, say, advanced toward the corner flag and crossed the ball with his right foot. Not one time. Arjen Robben may not actually have a right foot. His right foot may be a hologram, or a ball of tin foil attached to his shin with twine. There’s a good chance. No one would ever know, because he never shoots or passes the ball with it.

If you’re defending Robben, the only thing you need to remember is to force him to use his right foot. That’s it. That’s the whole strategy. Everyone knows this. And yet his one move is so beguilingly effective that he’s scored 67 times in 119 games for Bayern. Every other game — more — his “oh hi opposing left back maybe I’ll just take the ball toward the corner for a nice simple right-footed cross HAHAHA NO YOU FOOL I AM CUTTING INSIDE YET AGAIN AND WILL NOW SURPRISE YOU BY SHOOTING WITH MY LEFT FOOT FOR THE 9,000TH CONSECUTIVE TIME” trick actually pays off. It’s mind-boggling.

There’s a secret here, though, known only to the savviest defenders, which is that Robben always telegraphs his inside cuts with his eyes. That is, no matter what his eyes are doing, it’s a signal that he’s about to cut inside, because he’s always about to cut inside, unless he’s already cut inside, in which case you might want to watch that left foot for any signs of shootiness. To help Dortmund’s defenders crack this enigma, I’ve created a handy guide to reading Robben’s expression.

Arjen Robben Eyes - 1

Fig. 1. About to cut inside.

Arjen Robben Eyes - 2

Fig. 2. About to cut inside.

Roben Arjen Eyes - 3

Fig. 3. About to cut inside. (Note: baby may also cut inside.)

Arjen Robben Eyes - 4

Fig. 4. The woman is a decoy. The glassware is a decoy. The entire banquet is a decoy! He’s about to cut inside!!

Arjen Robben Horse Eyes - 5

Fig. 5. About to eat some oats. NO IDIOT IT’S A TRICK HE’S ABOUT TO CUT INSIDE.

Memorize this chart, Dortmund defenders. And when Robben wins the deciding penalty by collapsing in a heap the second you make him touch the ball with his right foot, just remember: Winning a moral victory against Arjen Robben still really sucks.

5. Do you have any kind of prediction, then?

Bayern over Dortmund 3-2, maybe? With the winning goal scored in stoppage time from a free kick following a phantom foul on Robben? Lewandowski will score in the first half but leave with a knee injury, Kevin Großkreutz will be subbed on at halftime, and Bayern will win a Champions League–Bundesliga double with Pep Guardiola next season but lose out on the treble when an undermanned FC Köln improbably beats them in the Cup.

Then again, the Germans have a word for “the skepticism one feels toward an overly specific prediction made by someone who gives off a strong vibe of not knowing what he’s talking about.” It’s psssssshhh.

Filed Under: Champions League, Events, Fantasy Sports

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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