Borussia Dortmund have done their very best to rule themselves out of this season's Bundesliga title race for good in recent weeks.
After threatening to throw away a two goal lead against Mainz, they did just that in Bremen, not to mention the five minutes of madness which saw them lose the Revierderby against local rivals Schalke. This weekend, on the penultimate day of the season, they almost did it again.
With Bayern Munich having been held to a goalless draw in Leipzig, Mario Götze put Dortmund 3-1 up against ten-man Fortuna Düsseldorf in injury time – and yet the Black and Yellows still very nearly contrived to hand Bayern the title as Düsseldorf pulled one back before a corner and a freekick put Dortmund under extreme late pressure.
They held on – just – and, for the first time since 2010, the Bundesliga title race will go down to the final day, when Dortmund will have to win in Mönchengladbach while hoping that Bayern lose at home to Eintracht Frankfurt. In the words of Sebastian Kehl, the head of Dortmund's professional football department: "Everything to play for!"
Very much so. The most entertaining Bundesliga season in years now has the finale it deserves – although entertainment should not be conflated with quality. Far from it; the league has Bayern and Dortmund's glaring deficiencies to thank for an exciting climax.
Jury still out on Kovac
Statistically, Bayern Munich have recorded one of the best finishes to a season in the club's history, having lost only once this calendar year, taking 39 points from a possible 48 so far and scoring 32 goals in their last ten. But winless runs in September and November saw them nine points off the pace by Christmas.
Even on the final straight, despite taking 24 points and averaging over three goals per game in their last ten, Bayern have missed two huge opportunities to strike a fatal blow, drawing in Freiburg, Nuremberg and Leipzig.
Robert Lewandowski is on course to win a third Bundesliga golden boot but, in the absence of a more refined offensive philosophy from coach Niko Kovac, Bayern are over-reliant on the Pole.
Kovac himself is in an unenviable position. In only his third season in Bundesliga management, the 47-year-old has been tasked with overseeing a transitional phase in Bayern's development – with some success. But the Croatian was never Karl-Heinz Rummenigge's first choice and remains in the middle of a tug-of-war between the CEO and president Uli Hoeness.
A relatively young and inexperienced Borussia Dortmund team has managed to capitalize on Bayern's weakness and has exceeded all expectations in taking the title race to the wire. But they too remain very much a work in progress.
Time and time again, Dortmund's psychological weakness has been exposed under pressure, pressure which grew and grew as they saw their nine point lead slowly evaporate as La Bestia Negra, the Black Beast, as Bayern are known in Spain, breathed down their necks. The 5-0 hammering in the Allianz Arena only served to emphasize the perceived superiority of their opponents in a direct contest.
By the time Roman Bürki allowed the ball to slip underneath his body in Bremen, a Werder equalizer seemed inevitable. And after Dawid Kownacki pulled one back for Düsseldorf in the 95th minute this week, no one inside the Westfalenstadion would have been particularly surprised had Kenan Karaman – left unmarked in the six-yard-box in the 98th minute – volleyed under the bar rather than over it.
Because, in those situations, Dortmund lack leadership. Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel add a degree of technical experience and composure in midfield but they are not leaders on the pitch – not yet, anyway. Neither is Götze, one of Dortmund's top performers this season with seven goals and seven assists, but yet to take on a leadership role in dressing room following his failed Bayern move and a debilitating metabolic injury. Marco Reus is the team's captain and talisman, but even he lost his composure against Schalke.
It's not just psychological; Dortmund still have a severe quality deficit as well, especially in defense, where a frequently makeshift back-four is particularly vulnerable from set-pieces. Abdou Diallo and Manuel Akanji, both 23, and Dan-Axel Zagadou and Achraf Hakimi, both 19, have all been forced to fill in in various positions, as have Julian Weigl and Raphael Guerreiro, midfielders by trade.
Lucien Favre must also take responsibility. His stubborn refusal to deviate from his 4-2-3-1 formation has left Dortmund without a plan B while his decision to play Reus as a lone striker against Bayern backfired spectacularly as Dortmund were robbed of their most influential player in his best position.
Even taking the dismantling in Bavaria into account, Dortmund could already have wrapped up this title with wins over Augsburg, Schalke and Bremen. As it is however, the most off-color Bayern Munich team in seven years will now go into the final day two points clear.
For the neutral, it's a fascinating tussle between two giants who have done their utmost to hand the title to the other at various stages of the season. It's a perfect climax to two imperfect seasons.