Borussia Dortmund must lick wounds after derby defeat, prepare for Leverkusen visit
DORTMUND, Germany -- When Borussia Dortmund captain Marcel Schmelzer was asked on Sunday if he couldn't wait for the season to be over. He froze for a few seconds to ponder on his answer. "If we reach the Champions League, then yes," he ultimately said.
The left-back was standing in the mixed zone of the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, talking to reporters after what had been a bitter 2-0 defeat in the Revierderby against second-placed Schalke and had apologised moments before for his mistake that led to the hosts' opening goal in the second half.
It was a bitter loss because Dortmund could have leapfrogged the Royal Blues with a win to clinch second place and make up to their fans for many shortcomings throughout the season.
Instead, they dropped to fourth, behind upcoming opponents Bayer Leverkusen, who will visit the Westfalenstadion on Saturday for the Bundesliga Topspiel. And Schmelzer, who had proclaimed in November that BVB were still number two in Germany behind Bayern, had to realise that his team was without a chance against the second-placed side in the Bundesliga.
The goal that put Schalke on the path to victory in the 50th minute on Sunday perfectly captured Dortmund's discrepancy between self-perception and reality.
BVB were building from the back, centre-back Omer Toprak passed the ball to Schmelzer, who was positioned near the sideline just beyond the halfway line. Before the ball had left Toprak's boot, Schalke wing-back Daniel Caligiuri had already started his run and came just in time to scoop up the ball after Schmelzer failed to control it with a heavy touch. Seconds later, Yevhen Konoplyanka smashed the ball past Roman Burki.
The same exact goal could have happened much sooner in the game, as similar situations occurred with Schalke's wing-backs running at BVB's at full speed, swatting the buildup of the Black and Yellows. Schmelzer revealed in the mixed zone after the game that Dortmund had triggered Schalke's pressing on the wing on purpose in order to play into the space that would open up behind the wing-backs.
In theory, it was a decent strategy to open up an opponent that is well organised. In practice, however, it played right into the hands of a Schalke team who has made pouncing on mistakes their main agenda.
It was a small but revealing insight into BVB's tactics and their own hubris in gambling on two players with a limited press resistance in Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek to play around one of Schalke's most effective weapons this season. It also showed how helpless the Black and Yellows are to create chances by themselves from open play.
Now, Dortmund have to lick their wounds and prepare for the next big match against Leverkusen, as coach Peter Stoger put it. At Thursday's pregame news conference, the Austrian was hopeful that Bayer's more proactive approach will award his own players more freedoms to create plays and predicted that fans could be in for an entertaining game.
Heiko Herrlich's team will arrive at the Westfalenstadion with form very much on their side after having dismantled both RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt by a 4-1 scoreline in their previous two league fixtures, even though the 6-2 loss at home to Bayern Munich in the cup semifinal on Tuesday would suggest otherwise. Yet despite the gruesome scoreline, Leverkusen managed to give Bayern a real run for their money until Thomas Muller's strike made it 3-1 in the second half.
Leverkusen's attack consisting of Kevin Volland, Julian Brandt, Kai Havertz and Leon Bailey or Karim Bellarabi are likely to cause Schmelzer and his colleagues a lot of headaches. So Dortmund may have to win the match on the front foot going up against a defence that will desperately miss the presence of captain Lars Bender, who is suspended after picking up his fifth booking of the season.
Stoger, meanwhile, will have to make do without his primary centre-forward Michy Batshuayi for the rest of the season. The 24-year-old Belgium international, who joined Dortmund in January on loan from Chelsea in order to find playing time ahead of the World Cup in Russia, picked up an ankle injury in the dying minutes of the Revierderby.
Dortmund's decision to enter a season that included Champions League football without a proven backup striker may come back to haunt them. It could mean an enormous chance for the 18-year-old Alexander Isak, who is the only true centre-forward in the team. The talented Swede has shown in 276 minutes for BVB's senior team that he has abilities that could be a help. He has, however, only played 58 minutes in the Europa League since the end of January and is yet to score a Bundesliga goal.
So Stoger may have more trust in one of Marco Reus, Maximilian Philipp and Andre Schurrle to fill the spot up front in the most crucial moment of the season.
Ultimately, it could be Mario Gotze or Andriy Yarmolenko who will find their way into the starting XI with another attacking midfielder moving further ahead. Either way, it will be hard to make up for Batshuayi's impressive scoring rate of 0.71 goals per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga. Whether the striker can replace Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the long term will also depend on a Champions League qualification to afford what is likely to be a club record fee, if Chelsea are willing to sell.
Going into matchday 31, BVB hold a four-point gap over fifth-placed RB Leipzig and five points over sixth-placed Hoffenheim, who will go head to head on Saturday. With that favourable matchup, Dortmund could make a massive stride toward a top-four finish, but it could also get very uncomfortable really fast.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.