Dortmund's top-3 finish on the line as Marc Bartra returns after attack
DORTMUND, Germany -- "It is absolutely crucial," Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke reiterated during the week ahead of the Bundesliga's final matchday, in speaking about his team's mission to secure a third-place finish and thus qualify for next year's group stages of the Champions League. "It would give us planning security," he said.
"We want to avoid playing in the Champions League playoffs," team captain Marcel Schmelzer told Kicker. But a 1-1 draw away to Augsburg on the penultimate matchday has left BVB with two must-win matches at the end of the season, including a cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt on the following weekend that would give the team some much-needed silverware to end the campaign.
Dortmund occupy third place as they host Werder Bremen on matchday 34. They are ahead by only four goals over fourth-place Hoffenheim, who will host Augsburg in an attempt to catch the Black and Yellows with a blowout result. A win should be enough for the Ruhr side to remain third, but crazier things have happened.
For Tuchel, this pressure isn't necessarily a bad thing as his team are also looking for the first cup win in their fourth-consecutive DFB Pokal final. The manager told journalists at Friday's prematch news conference: "Last season, we had the second-most points in club history. The last league matchday before the cup final, however, felt like a non-match where you could win nothing other than keeping your own form up. It's different this time. It's not common that you can reach two big goals in two finals.
"Bremen have [gone] back to their roots. They seem to be OK with their opposition creating chances for the sake of creating their own attacking power," Tuchel said, alluding to Bremen's resurgence to the top half of the table. They had won 10 and drawn two in 12 matchdays in an awesome run that propelled them up to sixth place after being stuck in the relegation fight for the majority of the season. That run came to an abrupt halt after the 4-3 loss away to Cologne a fortnight ago and the aforementioned defeat to Hoffenheim, which saw them slide back to eighth place.
"They basically have two German internationals up front in Max Kruse and Serge Gnabry and the highly underappreciated Fin Bartels -- that is a lot of individual quality upfront. We have to find a good balance," Tuchel said, warning that winning will be hard enough, let alone by a bigger margin.
Finding a good balance might be trickier than usual for Dortmund with the absence of Julian Weigl, who suffered a broken ankle in Augsburg. The experienced Nuri Sahin, who only just recovered from an ankle injury himself, is likely to replace the 21-year-old in central midfield on Saturday. On a brighter note for Dortmund, Marc Bartra is likely to return to the starting XI following his injury he suffered in the attack on BVB's team bus on April 11. That could be a massive boost for BVB's defensive stability and build-up play. Also in light of the cup final, it will be crucial for both Sahin and Bartra to gain some game time, but there is no guarantee that either will hit the ground running, so it will be even more important for their teammates to take as much pressure off them as possible.
To do that, the Black and Yellows will need to draw confidence from their strong 37-game unbeaten record at home. Tuchel is yet to lose a Bundesliga home match, and Saturday's could also be his last due to a seemingly insurmountable rift between the coaching staff and the board and the team.
Confronted with a question hinting at the 43-year-old's exit after this season and whether that would have any effect on how he would perceive the next home fixture, Tuchel tried to smile the elephant in the room away: "[We want to] completely dive into the game, and let us carry from the special atmosphere that will be created in the stadium by the fans. It will be a special experience, completely detached from whatever my situation is."
That nobody at the club, including Tuchel himself, wants to comment on the obvious tension speaks for itself, but those issues must be set aside in this very vital stretch of the season.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.