Dortmund face midfield conundrum in tight second leg at Atalanta
On Thursday, Borussia Dortmund will look to reach the round of 16 in the Europa League in the return leg against Serie A's Atalanta. Thanks to Chelsea loanee Michy Batshuayi's stoppage-time winner last week, the Black and Yellows, who are yet to lose in 2018, will enter the tie with a 3-2 advantage.
The match will take place around 200 kilometres southwest of Bergamo at the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia as Atalanta's Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia is not modern enough to comply with UEFA's regulations. Nevertheless, the German side are to expect a heated atmosphere in the 23,000-seat ground created by Atalanta's famous Tifosi, who already created a special atmosphere at the Westfalenstadion last Thursday.
Although coach Peter Stoger sees his side enter the reverse fixture as favourites, Dortmund could have entered the game with a lot more ease if it weren't for sloppy 15 minutes after the break. Playmaker Josip Ilicic pounced twice within the space four minutes at the start of the second half as the hosts, who were comfortably the better team in the first half, came out of the dressing room complacent.
"We stopped playing football in a phase where Atalanta became stronger," defensive midfielder Julian Weigl told reporters after the match. "We could not evade their pressure anymore because we lacked courage and opted to just punt the ball down the field, which allowed them to easily regain possession quickly."
Dortmund showed lapses typical of their European campaign this season, in which tactical errors combined with individual mistakes have been commonplace. Weigl, who is suspended in the second leg for picking up his third booking, was one of the culprits as he was caught ball-watching in no-man's land for Atalanta's equaliser in the 51st minute.
The 22-year-old has been a shell of his former self this season after returning from a long-term injury that forced him to skip the summer preparations. In Dortmund's fortunate 1-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach on Sunday, the midfielder misplaced an alarming 14 out of 38 passes while teaming up with Gonzalo Castro in a double pivot.
As Weigl's search for form continues, Stoger is far from having capable alternatives at hand.
Nuri Sahin could rotate into Weigl's position without changing the system, but the 29-year-old is worryingly lacking the athleticism to close down gaps in midfield fast enough. Summer signing Mahmoud Dahoud is yet to make a lasting impression in a Dortmund shirt. Although being more aggressive in midfield to wrestle the ball off his opponents, the central midfielder has too often been a liability due to sloppy passing and giving up possession dangerous areas.
So Stoger might be inclined to line up Mario Gotze in central midfield, as the 24-year-old playmaker has put his qualities to good use in a deeper position in the first half of the season, providing much-needed structure in midfield. But the 2014 World Cup winner's creativity has also been a useful asset further upfield, leaving the 51-year-old Austrian with a sizeable headache.
Stoger will also have to ask himself how much sense it makes for Marco Reus to start for the fourth time in 13 days after being sidelined for more than eight months.
"If he is top fit and in form, then he is indispensable for every team," Stoger told his news conference on Wednesday. "We are in constant exchange with him. He knows his body well. For us, it's important that he stays healthy. We will decide after the final team training or on matchday to determine his role. If he feels good, it's unthinkable not to play him."
The fact that Shinji Kagawa, Andriy Yarmolenko, Maximilian Philipp and Jadon Sancho are all being sidelined due to injuries, is not making the decision to rest Reus any easier -- even more so with 19-year-old Christian Pulisic struggling for form at the moment.
BVB will, however, receive a boost by the return of team captain Marcel Schmelzer from a muscle tear. Makeshift left-back Jeremy Toljan had struggled defensively in his previous three games.
Schmelzer is especially needed to keep his teammates in the right mindset when the going gets tough. The Ruhr side have suffered several setbacks on the European stage this season and it's also in his responsibility to keep his side focused. Chances are that Dortmund will not recover as easily from conceding twice at a hostile place as they did at the Westfalenstadion last time.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.