Dortmund's individual talent could be enough to overcome rivals Hoffenheim
DORTMUND, Germany -- Planungssicherheit ("planning security") is the prevalent term for the clash between fourth-place Borussia Dortmund and third-place TSG Hoffenheim on Saturday. With only three matchdays left in the Bundesliga, direct qualification for the Champions League is very much on the line for both teams although it won't be ultimately decided this weekend.
Dortmund's destiny is out of their hands thanks to last weekend's 0-0 home draw against Cologne, while Julian Nagelsmann's side found a late winner against Frankfurt to move one point ahead of the Westphalians in the standings. For both clubs, the pressure is enormous going into this match as neither will want to play a the Champions League play-off round. Not only would finishing fourth lead to the risk of a Europa League campaign, which would mean a loss of millions, it also makes the planning for the summer much harder as the bargaining chip of playing in Europe's most illustrious competition wouldn't be secured until late in the summer.
It's no surprise that both Thomas Tuchel and Nagelsmann were talking about the pressure for their teams.
"In my eyes, they are under more pressure going into this game than us," said the 29-year-old Hoffenheim coach in his news conference on Thursday, adding: "I know that BVB think the same: there are no mind games here, just my honest assessment."
His counterpart agreed with him; Tuchel confirmed on Friday that the pressure is bigger for Dortmund. But Hoffenheim do have a lot to lose as well. Their small European coefficient would, with all likeliness, mean the underdog role in the Champions League play-off round, especially as they would have to deal with the absence of Bayern-bound key players Sebastian Rudy and Niklas Sule.
It will also come down to which team can better deal with this pressure on Saturday. It certainly will be more routine for the hosts, as Tuchel commented: "There is always pressure. Whether it's about having a good start to the season, cup rounds or games in the Champions League. We've done very well in milestone matches this season. We're positive that we can pull it off again tomorrow." Either way, it's the perfect setting for an enticing league match between two arguably very similar set-ups.
Like Tuchel, Nagelsmann's preferred 3-4-1-2 system features six attacking minded players and only four defensive-minded players. Both Dortmund and Hoffenheim are comfortable in possession as only Bayern Munich sees more of the ball on average in the league, while the pass completion rates are almost identical (BVB's 81.5 percent to TSG's 81.6). In other words, this match will most likely be decided by fine margins on the field. It will be interesting to see which coach gains the upper hand in the tactical battle but in the end, it might be down to the hosts' individual class that could tilt the game in Dortmund's favour.
"Although we're already miss playing twice a week, we were also glad that we could afford to give our players a breather and time to nurse small injuries," Tuchel mused after BVB's first week without a midweek match after playing nine games in April.
Having fresher minds and fresher legs than in recent weeks will certainly help Dortmund. Especially Ousmane Dembele, who was only able to show his quality in flashes during recent matches, and should feel invigorated for this weekend. It was the 19-year-old who set up two goals for his team in BVB's 2-2 draw at Hoffenheim in December last year. Given that teams tend to adopt a more conservative approach in high-profile matches, Dembele's ability to create momentum on his own by dancing past opponents should come in handy.
More than that, a win will hinge on BVB's defensive department, who will have to deal with a bullying Sandro Wagner up front and the elusive Andrej Kramaric. Left-back Marcel Schmelzer and centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who both missed training as a precautionary measure on Thursday, have been cleared by Tuchel for the match. But Dortmund will have to do without Erik Durm, who has proven to a valuable utility player as a right wing-back in big matches. Tuchel could either opt for a back four instead of a back three or play Lukasz Piszczek as a right-wing back instead of Durm, making Matthias Ginter a right centre-half in a back three.
If this season has shown anything, it's that Tuchel's approach to games is almost impossible to predict. What is possible to predict is that football fans are in for a treat on Saturday. We can expect a spicy atmosphere, not least because Dortmund supporters make no secret of their disdain for Hoffenheim, who are a "plastic club" in their eyes.
Dortmund vs. Hoffenheim will literally go down to the wire as both teams not only face each other head to head but also play against FC Augsburg and Werder Bremen in the final two matchdays. Saturday will determine who has the pole position in the race, which will presumably run until the final day of the season.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.