Dortmund's Europa league hopes hinge on re-establishing chemistry
DORTMUND, Germany -- By the end of October, FiveThirtyEight's Soccer Power Index ranked Borussia Dortmund as the favorite to lift the Europa League trophy into Lyon's night sky. After the third round of the Champions League group stage, the German side looked the likeliest of Europe's best teams to make the drop to the Europa League.
Indeed, the Black and Yellows went on to grab third place in Champions League Group H by amassing just two points in a group consisting of Real Madrid, Tottenham and APOEL. Midfielder Nuri Sahin described the chance to remain in a European competition as a "gift."
Now ahead of the first leg in the round of 32, which BVB will host against Atalanta on Thursday, FiveThirtyEight's SPI ranks them as the fourth-likeliest team to win the competition, behind Atletico, Napoli and Arsenal. However, going by performances under interim coach Peter Stoger, Dortmund are light-years from being true contenders for European silverware.
A nervy 3-2 win away over last-placed Cologne and an unconvincing 2-0 win over second-to-last Hamburg last Saturday are the only two wins since the turn of the year, as Stoger's team continues to struggle to break down opponents while in possession.
"We tried to implement an improved combination play," Stoger told ESPN FC on Monday, "Obviously, it did not work seamlessly. Some guys picked up injuries, while others returned to the team. It's a constant process."
Injuries to Andriy Yarmolenko, Jadon Sancho, Raphael Guerreiro and Maximilian Philipp have not helped the team to jell in attack. With Stoger's much-needed focus on defensive stability, a once-entertaining Dortmund side has grown stale.
Chances are rarely created by intricate passing and clever runs that open gaps, but rather by coincidence, fast breaks and moments of individual brilliance. In that regard, BVB have to be very happy that Marco Reus is back from injury. The 28-year-old reintroduced himself on Saturday after an eight-month absence with three key passes that led to chances. He looks like a major game-changer in midfield.
Thursday night could mark the first time the trio of Andre Schurrle, Mario Gotze and Reus play together in a year and a half. Gotze and Reus have shown in the past that they share an understanding on the field, but given that they have spent only 97 minutes together on the pitch since Gotze returned in 2016, it remains to be seen if they can revamp old synergies.
Asked about the prospect of playing together, Reus told ESPN FC on Saturday: "I think that we'll form a powerful weapon, especially in attack. We haven't played together much since his return one-and-a-half years ago, also not with Andre Schurrle. We're always joking about that in the dressing room, but now it's finally time that we're all back together on the field."
Stoger quipped Monday that the chance of playing all three together wasn't a "horror scenario."
On the flipside, it would mean fielding an attack that has had little time to build chemistry -- with the winter addition of Chelsea loanee Michy Batshuayi making matters worse in that regard.
So the Europa League could come at just the right time for Dortmund to jell on the field while playing twice a week. The question, however, remains whether they can afford to take the competition seriously since they're only two points ahead of a non-Champions League qualification spot in the Bundesliga.
Dortmund centre-back Omer Toprak sounded ambitious at Wednesday's pre-match news conference, telling reporters: "We don't see the Euro League as a 'loser's cup' when you see the opponents in this competition. We want to show that we are Borussia Dortmund and want to go to Lyon."
Making it past Atalanta would certainly provide a boost to a team that couldn't beat Cypriot minnows APOEL in two games in the Champions League. But the Italian outfit coached by Gian Piero Gasperini could mean a lot of trouble for the Black and Yellows.
"Atalanta use an aggressive counter-pressing style that is unusual for Italian teams," Corriere Della Sera's Andrea Losapio told ESPN FC, adding: "And they like to apply a man-to-man defence."
Dortmund have struggled heavily this season when facing man-marking schemes, as they lack coordinated runs to draw opponents out of position and make use of the gaps. So the hopes of Stoger have to be pinned on Batshuayi to buy his teammates time to run into channels by holding up the ball and also on Reus, who showed against Hamburg that he can create something out of nothing.
The overlying question for Dortmund, however, is whether they are capable of a mature performance on the European stage after falling short by big margins in the Champions League under Peter Bosz.
Only time will tell.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.