Borussia Dortmund beat Eintracht Frankfurt to reach the semifinals of the German Cup this week and are now unbeaten in their last four games in all competitions. Despite their small run, they face a tall task to finish in a Champions league spot with the season winding down.
With Bayer Leverkusen’s fine form continuing and Schalke finally rounding into form, Jurgen Klopp’s side await arguably their most important spell of the season in the coming weeks. Their Champions League encounter against Zenit St. Petersburg, as well as some crucial league games, are approaching, all of which could decide the course of their season.
Competition Heating Up
At the winter break, it seemed as though all Dortmund had to worry about in the league was a Leverkusen side that had their best-ever Bundesliga start and a resurgent Borussia Monchengladbach. Eventually Leverkusen’s other competitive distractions would get the best of them and Gladbach’s thin squad would level the playing field and give Dortmund the chance to move into second.
However, with 20 matches gone, the Champions League approaching and increased competition around them, Dortmund are now facing a mountainous task of even ensuring they finish in a Champions League spot.
Schalke are currently in their best run of form since Jens Keller took over and just two points behind Dortmund. They have star striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar back and firing on all cylinders and Julian Draxler nearing 100 percent fitness.
With Real Madrid coming up in the round of 16 of the Champions League and already having been eliminated in the German Cup, the Royal Blues have shifted their focus to a second-place finish, aiming to push their local rivals to the limit.
Meanwhile, Leverkusen’s elimination from the cup this week could put them in a similar position to make matters increasingly difficult for Dortmund. Although their chances against Paris Saint-Germain seem better on paper, they too could be left with just the league to focus on in a month’s time. And Leverkusen are already having their best-ever league campaign.
Although Gladbach have slipped up since the new year, Dortmund now have Wolfsburg hot on their trail, who they will not only face in the Cup semifinals in April, but who are just six points behind them. Dieter Hecking’s side come off two impressive performances and have become Dortmund’s bogey team recently.
Klopp Continues to Search for Answers
Of course, Dortmund’s long season has not been made any easier by the plethora of injuries, but the team have struggled to play to their potential for much of the season.
They currently have five first-choice players out with injury, adding further strain to an already thin squad. Klopp has tried everything from utilizing players out of position, calling up players from the reserve team and bringing in reinforcements such as Milos Jojic in the winter transfer window.
Considering the rotating personnel changes and a congested schedule, it is no surprise that Dortmund have only been able to beat three of the teams in the top half of the league table.
More than anything, though, Dortmund have struggled defensively. While that is largely due to missing their entire first-choice back line for parts of the season, tactically they have left a lot to be desired. They have conceded at least a goal in their last 11 league matches, something that has not happened in more than a decade, and have not managed a clean sheet since October.
Dortmund face six top-half teams in their last eight league matches. Next month will present them with what should be a manageable, yet crucial fixture list. Eintracht Frankfurt, Nurnberg, Freiburg and Hamburg are all teams fighting for relegation and are sides they should beat, not only if they want to catch up to Leverkusen, but also to keep pace with the rest and finish in a Champions League spot.
Dortmund and Klopp have always been good at playing down pressure. The club even turned their underdog status in the Champions League last year into an effective marketing campaign. But with their recent success, Bayern’s runaway form and clubs around them improving, Dortmund have to keep the pace. And that is an entirely new territory for them.
A win against Frankfurt this weekend and Klopp will equal Dortmund legend Ottmar Hitzfeld’s record of 111 wins in charge of the club. That emphasizes not just how far Dortmund have come as a club under Klopp but also the expectations that now await them each season.
They also face the pressure of turning their home stadium into a fortress again. Dortmund are now without a win in four consecutive games at home, the longest streak since 2006. In those four games, they outshot their opponents 58 to 29 but scored only three and conceded eight.
Even with the reality of Bayern’s dominance, Dortmund can no longer rely on their underdog status. They are now in the business of winning and adding to their trophy count to remain at the top.