Saturday's Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich (stream LIVE at 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+ in the U.S.) showdown has a different feel about it with neither side in the top two. ESPN's lead Bundesliga commentator takes you through some of the angles that could prove decisive.
It's funny how certain moments from a game stick in your mind. I've been thinking back this week to being in Leipzig for the DFL-SuperCup, which can often serve as a weathervane for how the early season Bundesliga climate will look and feel.
Bayern were slightly hanging on late in the second half against resurgent opponents when Leroy Sane put in a strong, but illegal challenge and got quite worked up about it, earning himself a booking from referee Robert Schroeder.
I turned to my co-commentator Didi Hamann and we nodded together in saying that this might actually be a positive from a player who previously had cut rather a passive figure in a wretched second half of last season. Shortly after that, Sane scored a memorable solo goal to seal a 5-3 win for Germany's Rekordmeister.
It turned out that Bayern chiefs were also happy about Sane's SuperCup show of aggression. Sporting CEO Hasan Salihamidzic has referenced the incident as something they want to see more of from the talented Germany international. That and a greater commitment to working against the ball as well as with it. Salihamidzic reinforced his remarks this week by saying when Sane helps out defensively while still playing to his attacking strengths, there aren't many better players around.
The point is well taken. A highly driven Sane in the last two competitive matches has powered Bayern to important early leads against Bayer Leverkusen and Viktoria Plzen. Let's not forget that just a week ago the word "crisis" was firmly affixed to the Bayern narrative after four straight Bundesliga matches without a win. Sane, especially with his man-of-the-match performance on Tuesday, has done more than anyone to banish such talk.
But a more accurate measuring stick awaits him and the defending champions collectively, in Dortmund before 81,000 people on Saturday. Granted, BVB have already lost three Bundesliga matches this season and the historical portents are not positive. The last seven league clashes have all gone Bayern's way, including their clinching of 10 titles in a row in April. However, both teams have had problem areas to address and for the first time since 2009-10, neither BVB nor Bayern find themselves in the top two ahead of Der Klassiker -- as marketing divisions have come to call the fixture with a view to the international audience.
In many respects Bayern and BVB have had opposite problems, yet there are some areas of overlap too. On the one hand, Bayern have been the team for spectacular victories: 6-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt, 7-0 in Bochum, 4-0 against Leverkusen. Dortmund have mastered the art of the 1-0 win with four of their five triumphs this season recorded by this slender margin.
Yet the league statistics show both sides have been wasteful in terms of finishing their chances. Bayern particularly so in their lone defeat away to Augsburg. Dortmund have a shot efficiency of -5.1, which essentially means they should have just over five more goals than they actually do if you go by their opportunities.
These matches often hinge on key individuals and at the time of writing we must wait to find out whether Marco Reus and Mats Hummels after injury and illness respectively will be fit for Dortmund, and likewise Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Muller for Bayern following positive COVID-19 tests last weekend. (As of Friday afternoon, it seems as though Reus and Muller have been ruled out for Saturday, while Kimmich and Hummels are likely to be a game-time decision depending on how they feel on matchday.)
The most intriguing duel will surely be that of Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala, two good friends who locked horns recently when England and Germany drew 3-3 in a thrilling Nations League match at Wembley. Bellingham put on a masterclass on Wednesday in Dortmund's 4-1 Champions League win away to Sevilla on a night when he wore the captain's armband for a second match running at 19 years old.
Musiala, also 19, is by any estimation magical, mesmeric -- pick your adjective. I always marvel at his tempo and dribbling style, wondering while commentating what his skills are going to produce next. At the moment, for a big Bayern match -- and this is as big as it gets for October -- his name is one of the first on the team sheet.
A few things that could be important: If Hummels is over the virus that has bothered him this week, he has to play. With him in the side, BVB have conceded just one goal in 512 minutes of play, while without him they've shipped nine in 208. Hummels may not be the fastest or the best tackler in the league, but his game know-how makes him a must pick. Nico Schlotterbeck has brought fire and brimstone since joining from Freiburg but, at the same time, too many mistakes.
If Reus is ready, he has the capacity to dictate terms like no one else for Dortmund with his class and vision. Up front, Youssoufa Moukoko will get the nod over Anthony Modeste, who is struggling to fit with Dortmund's playing style. Bayern have plenty of cover for Kimmich and Muller if they don't make it, but it's never quite the same without those two Identifikationsfiguren (players who fans automatically identify with).
Confidence is high again in the Bavarian camp after nine goals without reply in their last 180 minutes of very convincing football. Sadio Mane has netted in both matches since the international break, Kingsley Coman is fit to play a role again and the only real worry surrounds the perplexingly poor form of Serge Gnabry.
But there are no such worries over Sane, born just along the road from Dortmund in Essen, and it would be no shock if he were to emerge as Bayern's key to victory. This game as a stand-alone contest offers high level theatre and incidents get blown up in a way they simply don't when the spotlight is less pronounced.
As always, Dortmund-Bayern merits your attention.