Why Ilkay Gundogan Is Key to Dortmund's Hopes Against Shakhtar Donetsk

Clark WhitneyFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2013

MADRID, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 06: Ilkay Gundogan (R) of Borussia Dortmund controls the ball ahead of Mesut Ozil of Ral Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on November 6, 2012 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Halfway through their two-legged Champions League tie with Shakhtar Donetsk, Dortmund are in good standing to progress to the quarter-finals. The two-time defending Bundesliga champions secured a 2-2 draw in Ukraine three weeks ago, and their two away goals mean that they will automatically advance as long as they do not lose or concede two or more times in a draw.

The second leg of the tie will take place on Tuesday at the Signal-Iduna Park, where BVB will benefit from the support of their home fans. The hosts will also have a big bonus in the form of Ilkay Gundogan, who will be available to play after missing the first leg with injuries to his thigh and toe. And of all the players in Juergen Klopp's squad, it just might be the Gelsenkirchen native who makes the difference between progress and elimination.

With Gundogan sidelined in the first leg, BVB's defensive midfield duo of Sven Bender and Sebastian Kehl struggled. The latter especially had trouble dealing with the pace of the game, and neither had enough skill on the ball to calmly transition from defense to attack.

Either Mario Goetze or Marco Reus dropped deep to bring the ball forward (leaving one less target in the attack), or the ball would be punted wildly clear. The result was that Dortmund looked a far cry from their typically dominant selves in midfield, which limited their effectiveness both in attack and in defense.

The first Shakhtar match was no anomaly. This season, Gundogan has started in all but six Bundesliga matches. Dortmund have failed to win any of their fixtures without him in their starting lineup, drawing and losing three apiece. For now, Gundogan is simply irreplaceable.

A playmaker during his time at Nuernberg, the 22-year-old has been converted by Klopp into a box-to-box midfielder, formally deployed in the holding role. He still has all the passing precision, soft first touch and dribbling ability he had as a classic No. 10, but has since developed his game otherwise.

Now, Gundogan is fitter and can use his quickness and strength to win the ball. He's developed an instinctual sense of tactics and where to position himself. But the biggest difference between Gundogan now and before his move to Dortmund in the summer of 2011 is his judgment.

Initially, Gundogan took too many risks, the type that a playmaker would make at the edge of the attacking penalty area but that are unacceptable near the halfway line. He's since learned the subtleties of maintaining possession in tight spaces: feints, shielding the ball with his body, dribbling and playing 1-2 passes.

Initially signed to replace Nuri Sahin, he now is keeping the Turkey international (who returned to BVB in January) out of a first-team role and is every bit as good as the Real Madrid outcast prior to his departure from Germany.

Dortmund will enter the second leg weary, with the Shakhtar fixture being their fourth in 10 days. The Ukrainians will be fresher, for sure. But BVB have the home fans and two away goals on their side, and if that's not enough, the talismanic Gundogan can put them through.


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