Five points clear at the top of the Bundesliga with three games to go, Borussia Dortmund can take their seventh German title with victory at home against 1. FC Nürnberg on Saturday, but their place in next season's UEFA Champions League group stage is already confirmed.
The 1996/97 UEFA Champions League winners have been in the mid-table doldrums for much of the time since claiming their last Bundesliga crown in 2001/02. But this season they have left their peers standing this season under Jürgen Klopp, with an exciting crop of young players having kept them at the top of the table since 31 October.
"We all have this motivation to develop further, not just as individuals but also as a team," said Germany midfielder Sven Bender. "We always want to give the maximum. We see that every day in training, and we want to show it on the pitch at the weekend. And a lot of our lads can play very good football, and that helps a lot as well."
German-born Turkey midfielder Nuri Şahin, who became the youngest to play and score in the Bundesliga during his debut senior campaign of 2005/06, has witnessed some ups and downs, not least being ruled out for the remainder of this season through injury. "When I started it wasn't going too well. During my first year we were OK, we finished seventh. The second year wasn't too nice, we were fighting against relegation.
"Then I was on loan for a year [to Feyenoord], during which it didn't go to well for Borussia Dortmund again," added the 22-year-old. "But since I have come back, and since Jürgen Klopp has been here, we have had two-and-a-half or three years when things have been going really well. We have got better every year, and now we are experiencing our best season."
Former 1. FSV Mainz 05 player and coach Klopp, 43, has received plenty of credit for getting the best out of youngsters like Mario Götze, Neven Subotić, Shinji Kagawa, Robert Lewandowski and Şahin himself. "He's a great motivator, he always tries to find the correct words, and he almost always nails it," said Şahin. "He's open to comment, he's very intelligent, and you can see it in our game."
The result of that canny work is UEFA Champions League football next season, and Bender – just 21 – cannot wait to take the next step up Dortmund's learning curve. "You don't always get the chance to play in the Champions League, so if you have it then you should take advantage of it," he said. "Playing in the Champions League does everyone good, regardless of their age. We played in the Europa League this season, but the Champions League is on a different level again."
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