Borussia Dortmund: Key Battles They Must Win Against Shakhtar Donetsk
The Bundesliga winter break is long gone, and football fans can now look forward to the fast-approaching return of the Champions League.
In less than two weeks, Dortmund travel to Donetsk to face Shakhtar in the Round of 16.
BVB were dominant in the group stage, finishing atop Group D with 14 points, ahead of Real Madrid, Ajax and Manchester City. Only PSG had a more impressive points tally (15), and the competition they faced in Porto, Dynamo Kyiv and Dinamo Zagreb was decidedly less than that posed by the Spanish, English, and Dutch champions in Group D.
Still, Dortmund have much to prove as they enter the round of 16. After all, thus far they have only proven to be one of the top 16 clubs in Europe—not the best or even one of the top five or 10.
They must also face a Shakhtar side that knocked defending champions Chelsea out of the competition, beating the Blues at the Donbass Arena.
The table is now set for an exciting clash between Dortmund and Shakhtar. With the Champions League just around the corner, read on for analysis of the key factors that could tip the tie in either direction.
The Burden of Expectation
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When Dortmund were drawn in the "Group of Death" alongside Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax, it was generally considered unlucky. They could have drawn many less formidable teams.
On the other hand, the German champions were freed from the burden of expectation.
Drawn in such a difficult group, it would have been acceptable for them not to have advanced to the knockout rounds. Free from the burden of expectation, BVB performed brilliantly and finished atop their group.
Although experience may have played some role in Dortmund's improved performance this season, the fact they were not necessarily expected to survive their group cannot be underestimated.
But now in the Round of 16, BVB's situation has changed.
Dortmund remain the Bundesliga champions, and their dominance of Group D has raised their profile considerably. Shakhtar are no easy opponents, but BVB will be expected to beat them in the two-legged tie.
This expectation, especially considering that Dortmund have not won a Champions League knockout tie since 1998, could be difficult to overcome.
The Fight for the Middle Third
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Shakhtar have a formidable front four in Luiz Adriano, Willian, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Teixeira. And even if Willian appears set for a last-minute transfer to Anzhi, the Ukrainian side's illustrious attackers can have devastating effect if they are given space to operate.
Against what is a very fluid Shakhtar attack, Dortmund's best defense is to control the midfield as they did in the group stage. This doesn't mean winning the majority of possession, but rather containing Shakhtar, pressing high up the pitch and keeping the Ukrainian side out of their attacking third.
Critically, it means keeping a tight, narrow gap between the defensive midfielders and centre-backs.
Cutting off the Shakhtar attack early and especially keeping Mkhitaryan closely marked will be important for BVB, lest they give their opponents time and space to make flowing, attacking moves.
A similar strategy worked well in stifling Mesut Ozil and Sergio Aguero in the group stage, and the same can be effective against Shakhtar.
Mats Hummels vs. Luiz Adriano
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Luiz Adriano scored three goals and added two assists in the group stage and was easily Shakhtar's most dangerous threat in attack.
Dortmund centre-back Mats Hummels will have to keep a close eye on him if the German side are to advance.
While much of Dortmund's success in the group stage can be attributed to their midfield play and stout connection between their midfield and back four, BVB had weaknesses that on occasion were attacked by their opponents.
When attacking, the Dortmund centre-backs played very high, so as to allow minimal space for opposing playmakers to operate.
Real Madrid circumvented the attacking midfield by instead using long balls from defensive midfield to the centre-forward, exploiting the gap between the Dortmund defenders and goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller. It worked well as a strategy, with the lightning-fast Jose Callejon especially finding his way into dangerous positions during the match at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Hummels is Dortmund's man-marking centre-back, and his anticipation is brilliant. He has often shut out top strikers in the Bundesliga, but will be put to the test by the dynamic Luiz Adriano, who is a much more complete striker than those Hummels typically faces, such as Mario Gomez and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Mario Goetze and Marco Reus vs. Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat
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Dortmund played well as a unit in the group stage, but two players in their attacking ranks stood out as emerging world-class stars: Mario Goetze and Marco Reus.
Reus opened the scoring in Manchester, Madrid and Amsterdam in the group stage, his goals being absolutely vital to BVB's self-belief.
Goetze, meanwhile, played the cross that helped force Marcel Schmelzer's winner against Real Madrid at the Signal-Iduna Park and, two weeks later, created a go-ahead goal for the German side at the Bernabeu.
He put on a clinic in Amsterdam, scoring and assisting three goals against Ajax in 70 minutes of play, as BVB ended the match as 4-1 winners.
Typically in the group stage, Reus and Goetze played in undefined roles, with either Jakub Blaszczykowski or Kevin Grosskreutz playing with more tactical discipline as hybrids between wingers and holding midfielders. That left Goetze and Reus as the true attacking midfielders, and they often were found in wide areas.
Most notable was BVB's performance in the first leg against Real Madrid, in which Reus and Goetze put makeshift left-back Michael Essien to the sword.
Injuries notwithstanding, Goetze and Reus will face Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat on the left and right wings, respectively. The Shakhtar full-backs are experienced and underrated, particularly the Croatia international Srna, who captains the club.
Goetze and Reus have more than enough talent to take on the Shakhtar defensive duo but will be unable to pick on one or the other defender as they did Essien.
Dortmund Players vs. the Atmosphere at the Donbass Arena
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The last time Dortmund played in Ukraine, they came within three minutes of losing to Karpaty Lviv. On September 16, 2010, BVB needed an 87th minute goal from Lucas Barrios to make the score 3-3, and an injury time winner from Mario Goetze to come out 4-3 winners.
It was a win, but nearly a disaster. The hosts were a rather ordinary team and have since fallen significantly, finishing 14th in last season's Ukrainian Premier League.
Current leaders and three-time defending league champions Shakhtar will be a much more difficult challenge.
It is never easy for a club from Western Europe to travel to the former Soviet Union (just ask Bayern, who earlier this season lost 3-1 to BATE in Minsk), and a trip to Donetsk is approximately 1000 km farther from Dortmund than is Lviv.
When Dortmund visit the Donbass Arena, they will be in unfamiliar territory and facing a Shakhtar side that has lost just three out of their last 11 Champions League games. BVB did well in away matches in the group stage, beating Ajax and drawing in Manchester and Madrid.
But as they travel 2500 km east, they will face a whole new challenge in Shakhtar.