On Thursday night, Borussia Dortmund enter the round of 16 in the Europa League, hosting the first leg against Austrian league leaders FC Salzburg.
The Black and Yellows just squeezed past Serie A’s Atalanta in the last round, relying on a late goalkeeper error in the return leg to score the necessary goal to go through, 4-3 aggregate. The match in Reggio Emilia, in which BVB looked thoroughly uninspiring, was only a fortnight ago, but in the fast moving world of football spirits quickly change.
Dortmund took a lot of heart from Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Leipzig. It was a close fight between two competitors for the Champions League spots, in which Peter Stoger’s side were on par with last season’s Bundesliga runners-up if not better. On paper, it should be normal the Ruhr side have improved their chances against any league opponent that isn’t Bayern Munich given their financial power, which gives them a sizeable advantage over 16 other clubs.
However, in a season in which the Black and Yellows have struggled if not collapsed entirely against top teams, the benchmarks are different. After going behind 30 minutes into Saturday’s match, Dortmund were not shaken but showed resilience and found a vital equaliser just eight minutes later, scored by Marco Reus.
Stoger, who has faced a lot of criticism for his team’s lack of ideas, can take for credit reinstating mental toughness to a side that had lost several points in the past due to a lack of self-confidence. It was also the right response to a poor performance in the prior league match, which yielded in a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Augsburg.
It is now on the players to prove they do not only raise their game in the more prestigious games but also against opponents with a lesser pedigree. Salzburg, who have been relegated to a farm team for Leipzig within the cosmos of drink manufacturer Red Bull, would fall into the latter category.
Salzburg have lost pivotal players Konrad Leimer, Naby Keita, Dayot Upamecano, Bernardo, Stefan Ilsanker and Peter Gulacsi among others to Leipzig since 2015 and enter Thursday’s match as great underdogs, despite sitting on a comfortable 10-point lead in the Austrian Bundesliga.
Stoger affirmed at Wendesday’s prematch news conference that having played Leipzig on Saturday was a helpful preparation.
“Obviously, Leipzig and Salzburg have a similar philosophy,” he told reporters, adding: “They try to press high, play on the transition and have a similar focus on winning loose balls. However, it’s completely the same style.”
Nevertheless, Stoger expects a game similar to the one in Leipzig, promising stadium-goers an entertaining match that will see two attacking-minded teams. If the prediction holds true, the Black and Yellows should comfortably earn the spoils as their front four impressively demonstrated that they cut like a hot knife through butter when opposing teams offer space.
In that regard, Reus’ return couldn’t be any more significant after an eight-month injury break. The 28-year-old has BVB’s last three league goals, all created on a fast break. And the impact of the Germany international reaches beyond his football qualities as he has developed into a leader whose fighting spirit rubs off on fellow teammates, as team captain Marcel Schmelzer explained on Wednesday.
He said: “We all know how important Marco is for the club. He is a player that helps the team, who moves a lot and is always a passing option. It’s important in modern football to make runs just for the sake of creating space for others. He is very intelligent in that regard and also inspires teammates to do the same.”
The tricky part for Stoger is to decide how to divide Reus’ playing time at a stage of a season where every match is crucial. Life is made easier for the coach as attacking players Maximilian Philipp, Raphael Guerreiro and Jadon Sancho have reported back from injury — with the constraint the latter isn’t eligible for the Europa League.
Consistency in personnel will be crucial for the Austrian as the season reaches its final third, and he will hope that he has finally found the best combination for his double-pivot in central midfield after Mahmoud Dahoud’s encouraging performance in Leipzig.
Going by his attributes, the 22-year-old should be the best fit to team up with Julian Weigl in midfield, as he combines the ability to play dangerous through balls with a healthy touch of aggression in midfield. However, he has failed to show that on a consistent basis in a yellow shirt thus far. On Saturday, his excellent through ball set up Reus for the equaliser, and if it wasn’t for centre-forward Michy Batshuayi missing an open net from close range, Dahoud would have had two assists.
It’s only a small detail but may have significance: Dahoud has passed the ball 47 times to Weigl so far this season, more than any other holding midfielder despite playing fewer minutes than Gonzalo Castro and Nuri Sahin.
Dortmund’s possession play has suffered this term as defensive midfielders often have failed to link up with each other when a double pivot was applied. Dahoud’s performance in Leipzig was a spark of hope that some of BVB’s problems at the middle of the park will go away. Now is the time for the youngster to impose himself.
For Dahoud and Dortmund, the match against Salzburg should come at the right time to reaffirm their showings in Leipzig as the Austrian outfit is likely to cater to their strengths. But that will require consistency.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.