Borussia Dortmund are set to take a big blow in the transfer market ahead of next season, as Robert Lewandowski leaves the Ruhr side following four seasons at the club during which he developed from a talented prospect to a world-class star.
The Pole announced earlier this season that he would not renew his contract, which expires in June of 2014, and reiterated his position in November.
BVB now have to find a suitable replacement for the striker who has eclipsed the 30-goal mark in each of the last two seasons and is on pace to repeat the feat again in 2013-14.
In the past, Dortmund have been able to cope with the loss of stars. After a six-month teething period, Ilkay Gundogan settled into his role as a replacement for Nuri Sahin in 2011-12. The following season, Marco Reus came as a more-than-suitable replacement for Shinji Kagawa.
Now Dortmund are scouring the market for the right option to succeed Lewandowski, although the 25-year-old's influence week in and week out as well as his big-game performances will be exceptionally difficult to replace.
Any player who hopes to succeed Lewandowski and bring Dortmund forward—not one or more steps back—will need to have a very wide range of abilities.
Scoring goals is of course the primary responsibility of a striker and there are many qualified options who may be available, including Kevin Volland, Konstantinos Mitroglou, Edin Dzeko, Jackson Martinez, Christian Benteke and Diego Costa.
But Lewandowski is more than just goals: He is an exceptional fighter, a player whose physical strength and pace as well as tenacious pressing make him a nightmare for defenders—and an ideal striker in Jurgen Klopp's system.
Of the aforementioned, Volland is not quite up to par for having less upper-body strength and Dzeko misses out by not quite having the pace and explosiveness to fit in at Dortmund.
The final quality that distinguishes Lewandowski is his ability to create play. Since joining Dortmund, he's assisted 41 goals in all competitions for club and country.
The only aforementioned player with similar creativity is Volland, but with playmakers like Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan in their ranks, Dortmund need a physical presence more than a man to play the final ball.
Assessing Mitroglou, Martinez, Benteke and Costa, the latter is the best fit based on aggregate cost, reliability and, most importantly, the symbol his signing would be for Dortmund.
According to Bild's Heiko Ostendorp, cash-strapped Atletico Madrid were forced to insert a release clause of €25 million in his most recent contract. By contrast, Martinez's agent told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Sky Sports) that his client has a similar but more expensive clause of €40 million.
Benteke has no such clause and could trigger competition from his potential suitors.
The bargain, admittedly, would be Mitroglou, whose exit clause is in the amount of just €8 million per Goal.com. But what Costa offers that the Greek does not is a much bigger name and brand recognition, something BVB need in order to continue their development.
It once was an acceptable and even plausible strategy for Dortmund to sign under-the-radar gems like Kagawa on the cheap and give them time to develop. But now that is not enough.
Kagawa was a lucky find—many other budding talents BVB have signed in recent years, including Mustafa Amini, Julian Schieber, Leonardo Bittencourt, Ivan Perisic and Chris Lowe, have simply been unable to find their way at Dortmund.
It took Lewandowski a year to find his feet and Gundogan half a season. Even Kagawa, great as he was in the Bundesliga, never made much of an impression on the international level before leaving—a testament to the patience needed to allow players to adapt and develop.
With Bayern looking unlikely to make many mistakes in the coming years and BVB's Champions League seeding still in the realm of Rubin Kazan, the Ruhr side cannot afford to be patient as they once were.
They've set the bar high and must progress if they are to gain status as an elite club worthy of top stars.
Mitroglou looks to be a great striker, but on virtue of having played only in Greece, his reliability from day one must come into question. The striker may need time to adapt to life at Dortmund, time the club cannot afford to offer in a position as critical as that of centre-forward.
Costa would come at a higher price, but one that is still €2.5 million below the transfer fee paid for Mkhitaryan. And having played brilliantly with Atletico and Rayo Vallecano since recovering from an ACL tear in the spring of 2012, he has plenty of experience at a high level.
Moreover, the capture of Costa would be a message from the Dortmund board to its players that the club have ambitions greater than simply being a feeder for Europe's top sides.
Dortmund sent a message in beating Bayern to sign Reus in January of 2012, and again in denying Lewandowski a transfer 18 months later.
If they can replace the Pole with an already established international superstar, it could go a long way towards developing the club's name, convincing the likes of Reus and Gundogan to extend, and bringing new talent to the Signal Iduna Park.
Bringing Costa to Dortmund will be an enormous challenge and in all likelihood require some help outside BVB's sphere of influence.
One factor is whether Chelsea can sign Martinez, a move that would essentially rule out Costa's addition. Another is whether Liverpool, another club that Sky Sports previously linked with the Brazil native, qualify for the 2014-15 Champions League.
Finally, there is some dependence on how Dortmund fare in the 2013-14 Champions League, which will be both a signal of how formidable a force they remain after their run to the 2012-13 final and how much money they will be able to offer the player in wages.
Right now, Costa is a reach for Dortmund, but Hans-Joachim Watzke and company will have to aim for the best if they want to ensure the club's long-term success. To be the best, you need the best, and as BVB look to take the next step, they will need a sure bet like the prolific Atletico forward.
Anything less and they run a big risk to the progress they've worked so hard to ensure.