The Champions League returns tomorrow with a terrific match to look forward to in the Portuguese capital as Benfica host Borussia Dortmund.
When the draw was made most people made the powerful German outfit clear favourites, but Thomas Tuchel’s team have not been in the best of form recently and come into the game on the back of a defeat at the weekend.
PortuGOAL reached out to Borussia Dortmund expert Lars Pollmann from the excellent YellowWallPod to get the lowdown on the Bundesliga team.
1. Borussia Dortmund are currently in 4th in the Bundesliga, and face a fight to clinch a Champions League place for next season. On the other hand, the team have lost only two of their last 20 matches. How good are this side compared to recent Dortmund teams, and what is their current form?
Dortmund have been incredibly inconsistent in the Bundesliga, so gauging their form is hard to do. They will follow up great performances such as the dominant 1-0 win over RB Leipzig with absolute duds such as the 2-1 defeat at SV Darmstadt.
On paper, the team is weaker than last season’s after the departure of key players Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gündogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. However, before the season started the argument was made that the club had acquired more depth than they have had in years, and that still holds some truth. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The side is more talented than the one that made it to the UEFA Champions League final in 2013, but inexperience and inconsistency have plagued them throughout the campaign.
Thankfully, they have been more solid in the Champions League, where people seem to forget they topped a group with Real Madrid.
2. Ones to watch - Who are Dortmund's star players?
With Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mario Götze (who did not make the trip due to muscle problems) there are a few names with world-wide appeal in Dortmund’s squad.
However, one could argue that 19-year-old Ousmane Dembele has been the team’s star player since November or so. He has really come on and makes things happen when team-mates do not have good matches. His quickness on the ball and his technical abilities allow him to create danger out of the blue and head coach Thomas Tuchel has done well harnessing his creativity from a more central role in recent weeks and months.
Other than Dembele, centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos has perhaps been the team’s player of the season so far. The Greek defender has been a rock in defence and often has to kill fires started by his teammates, often his partners at the back. Lastly, goalkeeper Roman Bürki has been one of the best at his position in Germany this season and made important steps after an up-and-down first campaign for Dortmund in 2015/16.
3. Strong points/weak points – what must Benfica beware of and what can they exploit?
At their best, Dortmund are a free-flowing attacking machine that makes great use of the skill and pace of the likes of Dembele, Reus, Aubameyang, Christian Pulisic or Andre Schürrle. They combine through the half-spaces and put so much pressure on defences that they eventually crack. Remember that Dortmund set a Champions League record for scoring the most goals in a group stage this season.
Benfica will have to do a better job in stopping that and the key could be to focus on Julian Weigl. The 21-year-old midfielder is not playing as well as he did last season in the Bundesliga, but has been superb in the Champions League where teams give him too much time and space on the ball.
As for weaknesses, the team is not balanced enough and therefore has major defensive issues. Be it in transition, where it seems attackers sometimes do not track back quickly enough, or in their last-line defending, where BVB have conceded an inordinate amount of goals despite having numbers on the attack, Tuchel has not found a way to shore up his defence to this point.
Another weakness for Benfica to exploit is their defending of set pieces. Dortmund have conceded at least four or five goals from free-kicks flying in from the left side of their defence this season.
4. Formation and playing style – what system do Dortmund usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
Dortmund have a number of systems Tuchel uses and at times he switches between them within matches. In big games, and Benfica qualify as such an important fixture, he often goes with a back three, two wing-backs that will make it a back five when the opponent has the ball, and three players who move around relatively freely in attack. That system worked well against Bayern Munich and Leipzig, arguably their two best wins in the Bundesliga this season.
Generally speaking, they are a side that likes to attack but most importantly, wants to keep the ball circulating through their ranks. That has caused some problems in and of itself, with it sometimes seeming as though they have little sense of urgency going forward.
5. Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think Dortmund come into the tie in a confident frame of mind?
After getting embarrassed at Darmstadt on the weekend, the hope is that Dortmund will show a now-more-than-ever attitude on Tuesday. Bürki, for example, has said the team “will show their true face” at the Estádio da Luz. Darmstadt had won one point from their last 11 matches in the Bundesliga before beating Dortmund, and they could have scored three or four goals. It was arguably the worst performance Dortmund have showed all season. In that regard, confidence would be the wrong word, even though BVB have done well switching gears between the Bundesliga and the bigger stage in midweek this campaign.
6. What are the German press saying about the match? What was the reaction to landing Benfica in the draw?
At the time of the draw, Porto and Benfica were considered the best possible outcome for Dortmund, which is more a reflection of other teams they could have faced (Manchester City, Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain) than anything else. Of course, it helped that Dortmund had just beat Sporting twice and eliminated Porto in the UEFA Europa League last season.
Oddly enough, there have been few pieces on Benfica since the draw, mostly because other topics have taken precedence, be it Dortmund’s up-and-down nature in the Bundesliga or, more recently, the fan violence ahead of the Leipzig match. There is very little buzz around the Champions League at the moment. Most of my German colleagues will have no idea what to expect from Benfica, unless they saw them give Bayern a good fight in last season’s quarter-finals.
7. What do you think the result of the match will be?
I think Dortmund still have to be considered slight favourites thanks to their strong Champions League campaign to this point, but from all I know about Benfica, they are the kind of team that will cause them problems thanks to their superb defensive organisation. I’m going with a 3-2 for Dortmund on aggregate and a 1-1 on Tuesday.
Bonus question: Raphael Guerreiro update
Portugal’s Euro 2016 winner Raphael Guerreiro started off very well at Dortmund but then had injury problems. Has he fully recovered, what position does Thomas Tuchel usually play him and what do the fans think of him? Could you give us a brief Guerreiro report please!
Guerreiro missed more than half of Dortmund’s 25 matches before the winter break and, while he has started the last four matches in a row, it will take him a while to get back to his best.
His intelligence in his movement between the lines and his technical abilities still stand out, but he does not yet have the same impact as he did during his first few outings. Tuchel uses him almost exclusively in central midfield, having called Guerreiro “a player who makes everyone around him better.”
Fans adore him and project many hopes onto his fitness - some go as far as calling Guerreiro the man to save Dortmund’s season. He certainly is the best central midfielder they have at the moment, which says as much about him as it does about the rest of the players at that position and the club’s failure to sign a natural replacement for Gündogan. But not to take anything away from Guerreiro, he has been excellent for a first-year player coming to a new league.
Our thanks to Lars Pollmann. For more from Lars follow him on Twitter @LarsPollmann