On Thursday, Borussia Dortmund will try to overturn a 2-1 deficit from their home leg away to FC Salzburg in the UEFA Europa League to reach the quarterfinal.
“I read today that my job will also be on the line,” BVB coach Peter Stoger quipped at Wednesday’s news conference, adding: “Which is why I’m trying to leave a good impression in this news conference.”
The Dortmund coach’s gallows humour is a cool way of dealing with the headlines ahead of Thursday’s clash. However, given that his contract is only dated until the end of the season and the club bosses are far from prematurely making the appointment of the 51-year-old Austrian more permanent, Stoger’s European performances will impact that decision.
Overall, the Black and Yellows are boasting an atrocious track record in Europe this season. After setting a negative record by only picking up two points in a Champions League group with Real Madrid, Tottenham and Cypriot minnows APOEL, the German outfit has not done significantly better in the Europa League.
A 3-2 last-second come-from-behind win at home to Atalanta is the only victory from nine international showings this campaign. In the return leg, BVB were fortunate enough to profit from a goalkeeper error to reach the round of 16 in what was yet another drab performance.
The home leg against Salzburg was marked by yet another half-hearted display by Dortmund, who were exposed by a team with inferior individual quality yet a superior tactical concept — an attribute that was once used to describe a rampant BVB side that made their way to the Champions League final in 2013.
“Salzburg’s concept is based on transition attacks, they lurk for second balls. We were not up to their standard in the first leg. We were also not creative enough to create a rich amount of scoring chances.” Stoger said.
Dortmund boasted 64.8 percent possession yet did not look like a dominant side. It might be BVB’s biggest weakness under Stoger that the team cannot find many solutions via possession football. Salzburg underscored that fact in the first leg and it ought to be a warning to CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and sporting director Michael Zorc who need to ponder the club’s long-term future. The Austrian league leaders won’t be the last team Dortmund face who are comfortable with less possession.
Stoger added: “Obviously, turning the tie around isn’t an impossible task but a much better performance is required.”
Though at this point, the question has to be asked how much should Dortmund even want to continue their European adventure? Obviously, professional footballers — and especially those playing for BVB — should always have the ambition to win every match and every competition they are in. But in the bigger picture, achieving the Champions League qualification for 2018-19 is more important for the club than a deep run in the Europa League. Realistically, Dortmund’s chances to lift the trophy into Lyon on May 16 are very slim and the race for the Bundesliga’s top-four spots is mighty close with second-placed Schalke and fifth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt being only four points adrift.
The Westphalians required a sizeable portion of luck to come away with all three points on Sunday against Frankfurt, as Michy Batshuayi’s magnificent strike at the death of the game made the crucial difference.
The 3-2 win did not only see a brace by the Chelsea-loanee, who was benched for the first 60 minutes due to feeling tiredness after playing seven games within 35 days, but also saw a reinvigorated Christian Pulisic.
The 19-year-old U.S. international had come off the bench in four of BVB’s previous five games before returning to the starting lineup on Sunday. The winger forced an own goal and set up Batshuayi in what arguably was his best game since the turn of the year.
Stoger had maligned his team’s lack of movement in the home defeat to Salzburg. Though tactics might have played a major role in the loss, one cannot deny that Dortmund’s attack also lacked freshness.
It looks as though, the strain of the Europa League takes a toll on the individual class of the likes of Batshuayi and Pulisic. The latter has played 2,434 minutes for Dortmund this season — only Roman Burki and Sokratis Papastathopoulos have seen more time on the field but have done considerably less running.
It ought to not be the mindset of any professional sportsman, but for the sake of having fresher minds and legs in the chase for a top-four league finish, Dortmund should maybe sacrifice the Europa League at this point on Thursday.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.