Can Dortmund avoid German Cup hangover against tricky Cologne?
"It sure won't hurt," Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel said at Friday's pregame news conference of how Wednesday's 3-2 cup win against Bayern Munich would help give his team a boost for the rest of their campaign. "There is no question that wins as special [as Wednesday's] are a validation and give us a lot of confidence for the upcoming tasks."
Saturday's matchup at the Westfalenstadion against FC Cologne will be all about protecting third place, something Borussia Dortmund managed to snatch off Hoffenheim in the previous matchday: Dortmund received help courtesy of their weekend opponents, Cologne, who held Julian Nagelsmann's Hoffenheim side to a 1-1 draw.
However good Dortmund's win in Munich was for the team's spirit, claiming a victory against manager Peter Stoger's Cologne side will be everything but easy, something Dortmund's Christian Pulisic admitted in an interview with the club's own TV channel.
"Now we have a lot of confidence and we're heading into the weekend's match against Cologne with a positive feeling," he said. "Sometimes it's tough to play three, four days later after such a match [in Munich]. But now it's the last Englische Woche and after that, we'll have a break." Though before Dortmund get to enjoy the luxury of a full week's training ahead of a league match, they will have to carry their ongoing ailments into Saturday's match.
Sven Bender's midweek match jersey got a special place in BVB's own museum, the Borusseum, after the defensive all-rounder cleared Arjen Robben's shot off the line with a last-ditch effort. However, it still remains a doubt if the No. 6 will play this weekend, and Tuchel had also declared both centre-backs Bender and Sokratis Papastathopoulos a doubt. Both sustained knocks in the cup match along with midfielder Julian Weigl.
"We once again have to go beyond our limits. Otherwise, it won't be enough against an uncomfortable opponent. We need to be mentally ready to suffer through this again," Tuchel warned.
His team have failed to beat a defensively sound Cologne team in their last three matches as Cologne usually find a way to restrict Dortmund's attacking plays while making the most of BVB's susceptibility against counter-attacks under Stoger. That said, form should favour Dortmund this time: Tuchel's side have won all of their six home matches in 2017 while eighth-place Cologne, who are just one point away from a European place, have won just one of seven games on the road since the turn of the year.
The worry that a hangover will occur against after an emotionally charged cup night is, of course, ever-present for the Dortmund manager. Yet towards the end of the season, his constant rotation in personnel this season could prove helpful as changes in lineup and formation become more and more seamless.
Shinji Kagawa, who was benched for the past two games, should have fresh legs. So too will Gonzalo Castro, Matthias Ginter and Pulisic, who only featured for a limited time in Munich. It could be the sort of home match where Dortmund might just have to win ugly for once.
Obviously, their main focus must be on cutting off the supply to Cologne's talisman forward Anthony Modeste, the league's third-best scorer with 23 goals. Avoiding silly mistakes in build-up play could do the trick but that's easier said than done against Cologne, who like to position their front three (consisting of former Dortmund player Leonardo Bittencourt, Modeste and Yuya Osako) right in front of the opponent's centre-backs, forcing them to punt the ball down field.
If successful, it will be a long day for Dortmund if they will have to resort to long balls out of the back as only three Bundesliga sides have a higher success in aerial duels than Cologne. Thus wing-backs Marcel Schmelzer and Erik Durm could once again become pivotal: BVB could decide to feed them with diagonal balls from the back to play around a congested midfield.
If Schmelzer and Durm find a quick way to move the ball further to the lurking Pulisic, Kagawa or Ousmane Dembele in midfield, Tuchel's men should find themselves well-poised to run at Cologne's tall but immobile centre-backs Dominique Heintz and Frederik Sorensen. The Dortmund coach often marks a diamond shape on the training ground to simulate exactly that scenario.
A win against Cologne could pave BVB's way to a third-place season finish and maybe even reignite their hopes of closing the six-point gap to RB Leipzig in second. However important reaching the cup final might have felt on Wednesday, achieving direct Champions League qualification is much more significant for their long-term ambitions.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.