Dortmund can salvage up-and-down season by clinching UCL place vs. Mainz
DORTMUND, Germany -- On Saturday, on the penultimate matchday, Borussia Dortmund can seal their qualification for the 2018-19 Champions League with a win against 14th-placed Mainz thanks to a four-point gap with fifth-place Bayer Leverkusen.
After leading the league for nine rounds only to find themselves back in eighth place in December, this is the scenario the club had hoped for when they appointed Peter Stoger two games ahead of the winter break.
For obvious reasons, Champions League qualification is vital for the club not only to sustain their financial income and foot the wage bills but also to ensure their own status in German football. Dortmund have a big summer overhaul in front of them which will most likely entail a managerial change with Nice's Lucien Favre seeming to be the hottest candidate. When it comes to luring new talent to the Westfalenstadion, being able to offer Europe's most illustrious competition can make a vital difference.
And, in a way, the fact that Dortmund have their fate very much in their own hands after a topsy-turvy season should lend them a sense of reassurance. Especially in a season that featured two different managers in Peter Bosz and Stoger and went far from smoothly -- notably a midseason identity crisis.
Even more so because there doesn't seem to be a team that can take away Dortmund's status as the second-biggest club in Germany anytime soon. Rivals Schalke 04, who are likely to finish second, might have the best chance to do that in the long term but the Royal Blues will have to deal with the added strain of European football next season and will have to replace integral parts of their midfield in Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer. Furthermore, Domenico Tedesco will have to make significant changes to his team's footballing identity, as their current reactive style that is designed to pounce on opponent's errors will not continue to work in the Bundesliga or on the European stage.
Former Bayern Munich sporting director and ex-Dortmund manager Matthias Sammer, who has been appointed by Dortmund as an external advisor, has even gone further in his criticism of the Bundesliga. In a recent interview with a German podcast, the 50-year-old maligned that the German top flight lacks a proactive style, in general, barring the league leaders.
He said: "The Bundesliga thinks the future lies in defence and avoiding errors. That is wrong. We can't even defend well in the Bundesliga. We need to orient to what the best are doing and the best want to have the ball. Schalke can only work because the Bundesliga is so bad is -- if the league was better, Schalke would be around eight or tenth place."
Even a highly decorated Bayer Leverkusen side is struggling for a top-four finish despite not having to play on the continental level. And the wheels have come off completely in Leipzig. Last year's runners-ups, who were in second place on Matchday 22 this season, look out of gas after their first season of European football. Ralph Hasenhuttl's team - currently in sixth -- is only left with a slim theoretical chance to finish in the top four and will almost certainly have to settle for a Europa League campaign. It's yet unclear how RB Leipzig will deal without Naby Keita, who will join Liverpool in the summer and if Hasenhuttl will stay on as manager. Emil Forsberg, another pivotal player is likely to depart as well.
Hoffenheim, meanwhile, are the great exemption from Sammer's criticism as Julian Nagelsmann has got his team back on track with a proactive, possession-based style. TSG struggled early on with the addition of Europa League football and the absences of Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy, dropping as low as ninth in the league. Since then they have recovered and with two rounds left, Hoffenheim have a third-place finish in their own hands. The first qualification for the Champions League group stage would be a major coup for Nagelsmann's men but it is unlikely that the sought-after coach will work his magic in the Rhein-Neckar region beyond the 2018-19 campaign.
So if Dortmund can seal their qualification for the Champions League on Saturday against Mainz they can end the season on a very hopeful note. After several experiments, Stoger has helped the Black and Yellows find a way back to their footballing identity. In the last two games against Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen, he applied a possession-oriented 4-1-4-1 system that is run by Mario Gotze and Marco Reus in central midfield with Julian Weigl excelling once again in defensive midfield.
The "Gotzeus" partnership has revealed its potential for world-class performances in BVB's midfield and is something the club can build on in the long-term -- if both players can stay healthy that is.
Stoger praised the partnership of Gotze and Reus at Thursday's news conference saying: "They just have an amazing understanding. Passes, runs -- everything fits together."
Defender Manuel Akanji and winger Jadon Sancho also have used the final games of the season to hint at their value for the upcoming season. Sporting director Michael Zorc will have a lot of work to do but he has a healthy core to build from.
BVB will be looking for a smooth Saturday in their last home game as they not only want to wrap up Champions League qualification but also to give a fitting farewell to backup goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, who had been promised an appearance per substitution by Stoger if the run of play allows it. The 37-year-old is set to retire this season after spending 16 years at Dortmund. An appearance against Mainz would mark his 453rd appearance for the club, ranking him second in games played for BVB only behind Zorc who has set the seemingly eternal mark of 571 games as an active player.
It would mark a happy end to a difficult season -- snatching second-place away from rivals Schalke would be the cherry on top.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.