Borussia Dortmund must exploit Tottenham's balancing act
After overcoming Porto to reach the round of 16 in the Europa League, luck was again not ruling in Dortmund's favour when drawing Tottenham. Or was it?
Arguably two of the favourites to win the competition will go head-to-head for the first of two legs on Thursday at the Westfalenstadion. Both could as well have met in Basel for the final, but at least fans will get to see a minimum of 180 minutes of the promising tie between teams that currently rank second in their respective domestic leagues.
Which brings us back to the initial question. Borussia Dortmund just drew 0-0 against league leaders Bayern on the weekend, failing to take the chance to move within two points of their foes. In other words, the probability of Thomas Tuchel's men to win the Bundesliga has plummeted to close to zero, as five points and a better goal difference are too much to make up within nine games on Pep Guardiola's team.
It might be bad news for fans who are fed up seeing Bavarians lift the Bundesliga trophy - four seasons in a row -- but it's great news for Borussia Dortmund's Europa League ambitions. The Black and Yellows can now direct all their energy towards the fourth day of each week and rest their key players on the weekends, if necessary. The 16-point gap to third-placed Hertha BSC allows Tuchel to experiment in the league however he pleases.
Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino is asked to perform a split like an aspiring ballet dancer. Tottenham's five-point deficit to Leicester City seems much more feasible than BVB's deficit to Bayern. Hence, Spurs are bound to keep an eye on the domestic trophy, which they haven't won since 1961.
On the other hand, a prestigious matchup that has the feel of a Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund is something that the North Londoners do not want to pass on. After losing to West Ham 1-0 the previous Wednesday, only to draw against a decimated Arsenal from a winning position, has turned the pressure back on Tottenham in the Premier League.
It's perfect timing for Borussia Dortmund, who must ruthlessly exploit Tottenham's attempted balancing act within the next week. The German team have the slight advantage as they can fully focus on just the Europa League, without the danger of succumbing to complacency in the league.
Furthermore, Tuchel has few injury worries going into Thursday's home match, in which BVB will seek to gain a telling advantage before traveling to the English capital the following week. Only centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who only returned to team training on Wednesday, won't make it in time. Sven Bender would have arguably started at centre-back anyways next to Mats Hummels following the former's sublime performance against Bayern.
The concerns of the Dortmund coach lie with the form of his standout players, who have seen their form dip in recent weeks. Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang especially are the ones that have come under a lot of scrutiny.
The match against Bayern cruelly uncovered what already has become evident in Bundesliga matches, but hadn't been exposed previously since others had stepped up. Reus is currently having issues with his first touch, as his stumbles have killed countless promising opportunities for him and his team, while Aubameyang's goals have dried up more than they should have after Tuchel switched to a more defensive approach.
The Gabonese striker simply looks tired after already featuring in 37 matches for the club thus far, already more than a full Bundesliga season's worth. But if Tuchel wants to prevail, he needs both his star performers to play on their best, as margins will decide the tie.
"Dortmund and Tottenham are similar, both are second in their league. It'll be a very equal match," said Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller during Wednesday's news conference. While Weidenfeller's reasoning for the similarities might be a little askew, he is nevertheless right.
Tuchel's Dortmund and Pochettino's Tottenham have a lot in common. The Dortmund coach even described the playing style of the Londoners as being similar to many German teams. It's Tottenham's high pressing and compact shape paired up with possession-based football that have propelled them up to second place in a league that broadly lacks compactness and coherency between the lines.
Both are cultured in ball retention as well, while not feeling uncomfortable when they have to make do with less possession.
Thus it comes as little surprise as to what Tuchel feels will be the key on Thursday night. "It'll be interesting to see which team can impose its style on the other team tomorrow," he said.
Dortmund's intention is clear: Dominate the game in their own stadium in similar fashion as to how they dominated Porto in the last 32 first leg, with possession and a lot of patience in order to not give up costly away goals. Eight clean sheets out of 11 in 2016, also against esteemed opponents like Porto and FC Bayern, have proven that BVB are capable of a mature and clinical performance on a Champions League level.
While Tottenham have something to prove after their most recent hiccups in the Premier League, Borussia Dortmund's confidence and clear head should be a certainty on Thursday night, which sees the Germans as favourites to take the advantage.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.