Is Real Madrid showdown this Borussia Dortmund team's last shot at glory?
Sprains, strains and tears: that's been the story of Borussia Dortmund this season. Twelve months ago Klopp-mania was in full bloom, but this year the team is struggling to reach previous levels thanks to a string of serious and unexpected long-term injuries.
It's been a double blow for die Schwarzgelben. Along with those injuries, the team will also lose Robert Lewandowski, who will follow Mario Gotze and join rivals Bayern Munich this coming summer.
It's not an exaggeration to claim the Polish striker is irreplaceable. There's a reason Nuri Sahin called him 'the body'; not only is he all muscle, but his psychical presence up front, defensive awareness, ball control, hold-up play and prolific goalscoring is a rare blend. He's special, and even the club's CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke has said there won't be another one of him.
But for Dortmund, climbing hurdles and losing star players isn't uncommon. The club have promised to splash money on new signings this summer to bolster and rebuild the squad.
Without Lewandowski their shot at glory perhaps seems a long one, but Dortmund's European dreams took a knock early in the season when their injury list started to multiply. In all honesty, it's more of a collective problem than an individual one. BVB aren't a one-man team. Having to play a fortified Real Madrid side without five of Jurgen Klopp's first-choice players is bad enough, but to face them in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals in the Santiago Bernabeu without Lewandowski makes matters worse. After all, the forward netted four goals in the semi-final first leg against Los Blancos last season.
Missing from last year's first-choice team that faced the Spanish giants are also Ilkay Gundogan, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer, Sven Bender, Lewandowski (for first leg) and Gotze, now of Bayern. That leaves Klopp relying on the likes of Kevin Grosskreutz, 21-year-old Erik Durm, Sebastian Kehl, and Greece stopper Sokratis - not the preferred faces you’d want lining up against the likes of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet, with enough discipline and planning, football can bring strange results. Madrid are clear favourites, and with the German side’s injury list it’s easy to see why.
Watching die Schwarzgelben, there's a lot amiss. Injuries have clearly affected their performances and style of play. The high tempo, gegenpressing, quick passing and vollgas fussball isn't there. When it is, it tends to come in sparks. But taking their foot off the gas could also be the result of tired legs and a means to preserve energy, a way to deal with the injuries and lack of depth. Perhaps 'coping' is a more accurate description of their football this time around, particularly in comparisson to the captivating brand international audiences fell in love with last year.
Currently out of order, BVB's cohesion, combination and link-up play have all taken a blow since the injury crisis. The team's lack of depth and rotations have also placed a higher burden on Marco Reus and Nuri Sahin, who have both at times looked in need of a rest. Losing Blaszczykowski and Bender only added to that frustration. The back four has also been hit hard, and at one point Klopp's first choices were all injured, resulting in a makeshift defence. He's switched the defenders and has employed countless of different pairings this season. Although Lukasz Piszczek has returned after missing the entire first half of the season, he's still far from his previous levels of intensity. Schmelzer, who was just coming back into form, was recently hit with another injury and is sidelined until the end of April.
It’s hard to blame the absence of one player alone, because what made Dortmund so special was their team chemistry. Klopp could alleviate the situation by making more use of Milos Jojic, Jonas Hofmann, Marvin Ducksch, Marian Sarr, Julian Schieber and Durm. The next generation of black and yellows could benefit from the exposure, but their inexperience leaves the Dortmund coach pondering with hesitation.
Summer signings Henrikh Mkhtitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have shown considerable promise, but results haven’t been as stellar. The Armenian's vision and creativity is undeniable, but he'll likely come to the fore next season with more Bundesliga experience under his belt. Meanwhile, Gabon international Aubameyang is a mixed case - he shines in some games but lacks presence in others. His defensive contributions have improved and he’s still adapting to the pace of the Bundesliga, but with time, consistency will come. Short-term injuries throughout the season to Mkhitaryan, Mats Hummels and Sokratis have also made it difficult to create a sense of stability and cohesion among the squad.
But it's not all doom and gloom at the Ruhr club. This is a team that wants to consistently challenge for the domestic and European titles. This year they've been bruised hard, but very few clubs with Dortmund's depth (or even those with more backup) could cope with injuries of this magnitude. That makes reaching the final eight in the Champions League all the more satisfying. Klopp himself said the knockout stages are simply a bonus this season.
Closer to home, Dortmund's Bundesliga finish isn't any easier. Praising Bayern Munich's historic title win, Klopp quipped that Dortmund "truly need binoculars to see them", neatly summing up the gap between first and second in the league. Of course, last season Dortmund also finished 25 points behind the treble winners, yet they still managed to reach the Champions League final, came out top of the Group of Death and beat Real Madrid twice along the way. This year isn't entirely different. Bayern are just too good for any league at the moment, and as the Dortmund coach stated, the best team in the world just happens to be playing in the Bundesliga right now.
Those following the German league will attest to the unpredictability of the competition below first place. Securing a Champions League spot is no easy task, as the black and yellows have shown this season. Even Leverkusen, who at one time were comfortably in second, are now treading thin ice. While die Werkself stubbornly refused to drop points for most of the first half, their form in the Ruckrunde has dipped. Then there's Schalke 04, who always come to life after December and are only trailing BVB by a single point. April will be a tough month for Dortmund. They'll face European challenges, but also meet Bayern and Bayer in the weeks to come. Adding to that hectic schedule is their clash against Wolfsburg in the DFB-Pokal semis. What they need most is to stay focused as the toughest test comes now.
While media reports have linked several more Dortmund players including Hummels, Gundogan and Reus to other clubs, Watzke's recent words have provided a sense of reassurance. He's made clear that after Lewandowski they're not planning to sell any more players. While contract talks with Gundogan are still ongoing and his future remains uncertain, the player has stressed BVB is the first club he'll talk to. Holding on to this trio of top talent will send a strong signal to the rest that Dortmund refuse to become a feeder club.
But to consistently challenge and continue their impressive run in the different competitions, the team needs to rebuild and make additions in the summer. Lofty aspirations require depth: that's the biggest lesson the club can take from this season after stretching their squad to the limit and dealing with the consequences. Although Durm, Hofmann and Jojic have performed surprisingly well as rookies, what sort of role they’ll play in the future will be interesting. Certainly this team needs reinforcements now.
Whoever replaces Lewandowski has huge shoes to fill. Hertha Berlin's Colombian striker Adrian Ramos looks like the front runner, but other names linked to the club include Mame Diouf, Edin Dzeko, Kevin Volland and even Diego Costa. Injuries to Schmelzer and Piszczek also highlighted the need for full-back reinforcements, not to mention centre-backs. Furthermore Gundogan and Bender's lengthy injuries also brought to light the need to sign another top-class holding midfielder. At 34 Sebastian Kehl is too old to play twice a week, while Sahin is not a machine who can play 60 times a season.
Despite English papers going as far as to suggest Klopp will depart for Manchester United or Arsenal this summer, the German coach is committed to Dortmund until 2018. He's made it clear he is dedicated to the project at BVB, an undertaking that won’t dissipate into oblivion but is only starting to reach its potential.
Is this Dortmund's last shot at glory, then? No. They've been here before, minus the degree of injuries of course. What the team needs is to continue with their vision. A full strength Dortmund side would have been a strong contender for the Champions League, but for now they have probably reached their limit. European glory is never easy, even for clubs with money - Just ask Chelsea and Real Madrid. But highs and lows are natural. This has been an unfortunate, yet still successful, year for the club.
"My lads deserve to be in the quarter-finals because they always fight like wolves," said Klopp after they defeated Zenit.
No doubt it's deserved, but it's hard not to think of how far the team could have gone if they were all healthy, knowing this is Lewandowski’s final season in the black and yellow.
Even Lewandowski has stressed he'd like to leave the club with at least a trophy. Battered as they are, that is still a possibility. Winning the Champions League may seem a nice idea, but the German Cup is a more realistic option. No doubt European glory is harder now that teams have noticed this German side as a legitimate force. In fact, when Dortmund were winning back-to-back titles, Bayern Munich were the first to take notice.
Thomas Muller recently admitted that Dortmund were part of Bayern’s impetus to improve. "Dortmund is no longer eye level, but a team that is very unpleasant," he said. "Dortmund was somewhere our drive to become better." The Bayern forward doesn’t think becoming champions in March will always be a formality, however, and says the competition will tighten again.
But closing that gap depends on a healthy, rebuilt and stable Borussia Dortmund. Klopp described his team as wolves, and a wolf’s intuition never lies. Following these instincts, the team would be wise to add depth this summer, fill the current voids and reach vollgas once again.