The best Champions League final of the last few seasons happened four and a half years ago, when Bayern Munich squeaked by Borussia Dortmund 2-1 on an 89th-minute winner. The previous two seasons, Dortmund had been German champions. But from that 2012-13 season onward, the Bundesliga hasn’t known another champion than Bayern.
It’s sort of hard to imagine now, but for a few years there, Bayern and Dortmund were on equal footing. And with the two German juggernauts both thriving, there was talk that perhaps the Bundesliga was the strongest league in the world. But the last five seasons, Bayern has won it by 25, 19, 10, 10 and 15 points, respectively, putting an end to that conversation.
It isn’t just that Bayern has gotten stronger and deeper by the year, in spite of the foundational veterans Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso moving on or retiring while Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are much diminished. Bayern has turned retooling into an art, avoiding a major hiccup for half a decade — an eternal expanse of time in soccer.
For Dortmund, that’s hardly been true. The final season under Jurgen Klopp, who had restored the club to prominence, was a calamity in 2014-15, with Dortmund struggling to eke out a seventh-place finish after considerable time spent near the bottom of the table. Two years with Thomas Tuchel in charge produced promising soccer, but he never quite got all the pieces to fit together. And then he fell out with the club and left.
This season, Peter Bosz, newly poached from Ajax after its improbable run to the Europa League final last year, made a scintillating start with six wins from seven to start the league campaign. But then he lost five of eight and didn’t win any of those others. And so he was replaced by Peter Stoger, who had just been fired by last-place Koln, no less.
What’s remarkable is that Bayern lived through a similar crisis early on in the season as Carlo Ancelotti’s relationship with his players broke down. He was fired in late September after a 3-0 Champions League loss at Paris Saint-Germain and made way for the un-retired Jupp Heynckes — embarking on his fourth spell in charge of the club.
The difference between the two clubs, this season and all the ones before it, is that Bayern has lost just once since then, cruising into the knockout stages of the Champions League and not only taking the Bundesliga lead, but building out an 11-point gap going into the winter break.
Dortmund, meanwhile, has won both its league games with Stoger in the dugout, climbing from eighth to third place. But it lags behind Bayern by 13 points and went winless in the Champions League. Die Borussen could count themselves lucky to have even dropped down into the Europa League, since they scrounged up just two points — failing even to beat APOEL on two occasions.
And here’s the funny thing: Since that Champions League final in 2013, the head-to-head record between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund is fairly even. Going into their German Cup showdown on Wednesday, Bayern had won seven times; Dortmund five. They have tied five matches. The vast difference between them is only apparent over the course of a season, when they play other teams.
At Bayern’s Allianz Arena, that historical trend was confirmed when the home team prevailed 2-1 to advance to the quarterfinals. Because the game wasn’t nearly as close as the score implied, in spite of Dortmund’s second-half improvement.
The Bavarians were all over their guests from the outset. Arturo Vidal headed a ball off the bar early on. And when Ribery’s blast was parried by goalkeeper Roman Burki, Robert Lewandowski’s overhead kick skipped just wide.
But just 12 minutes in, Jerome Boateng put Bayern ahead. On a free kick swung in by James Rodriguez, Niklas Sule headed off the bar. Boateng tracked down the rebound and deftly placed another header past Burki.
Dortmund very much looked overpowered. In the opening act, it offered little attacking-wise but for a spasm by American teenager Christian Pulisic. In the midst of a competent game from the U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year, he swung in a dangerous low cross that was completely missed by defender David Alaba. But the latter recovered athletically and cleared Andriy Yarmolenko’s tentative finish off the line.
Before the break, Bayern got its winner. Lewandowski held the ball up and laid it off for Thomas Muller, who dinked it delightfully over Burki to double the score.
Burki distinguished himself in keeping the game somewhat close in the second half, as Bayern threatened to run up the score — a flying kick-save on the line on Muller’s header from a few feet away stood out in particular. That enabled Dortmund to put on something of a rally.
In the 77th minute, Shinji Kagawa’s delicate lofted ball to the far post was met by Yarmolenko, who finally beat Sven Ulreich with a header. But Dortmund wouldn’t get another goal in an even finale. Alexander Isak, the 18-year-old Swedish prodigy, came the closest, but his shot was deflected wide.
So here we are. Again. Wrapping up its chaotic 2017, Dortmund can no longer win the German Cup, the Champions League or, likely, the Bundesliga. And Bayern is very much in the running to win all three.
The score was close. But nothing else between these rivals is, or has been for some time.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.