Borussia Dortmund were paired with Real Madrid on Friday for the Champions League quarterfinals. Jurgen Klopp's men faced the Spanish giants four times in last year's tournament, getting the better of their opponents in the group stage and in the semifinals.
But even though BVB have proved to be a bogey team for Real in the past, the likelihood of the Ruhr side progressing to the semifinals is slim. Klopp's team this year is operating at a level nowhere near that of last season, with player sales and injuries diminishing their depth and class.
Last season, Dortmund had the advantage of no expectations: In the group stage, they were put against record champions Real, spendthrifts Manchester City and four-time European champions Ajax in the group stage. They were perhaps underestimated, especially after failing to progress from the group stage the previous year. But having reached the final last season, their threat is well known—especially by a Real side that won just one and lost two of their four head-to-head clashes last season.
Dortmund had just the right combination of team cohesion and class in 2012-13 but have less of both in the current campaign.
Ilkay Gundogan was widely regarded as the best midfielder of the Champions League, and Robert Lewandowski's four-goal haul against Real turned him into a superstar and a national hero in his native Poland. Add in the creative genius of Mario Gotze and Marco Reus, who complemented one another perfectly, and BVB had four world-class players in midfield and attack.
But with Lewandowski suspended for the first leg, Gotze having left last summer and Gundogan a doubt to return before season's end, Reus is the only proven, world-class star BVB will have when they visit the Bernabeu.
Attributing Dortmund's success solely to the performance of a few heroic players would be a mistake, however. The team had less star power than Real but made up for it in team play.
The pressing of Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub "Kuba" Blaszczykowski on the wing was key to stifling Cristiano Ronaldo. "Kuba" often stood between the Portuguese and Xabi Alonso, making it near-impossible for the two to exchange passes. And Gundogan and Sven Bender left Real's central players with neither time nor space to operate.
Looking at their most likely squad for both legs, BVB are depleted. Kuba, Gundogan, Bender, Marcel Schmelzer and Neven Subotic will miss both legs due to injuries. And although their replacements have at times deputized well, the latter stages of the Champions League will always expose even the slightest weaknesses. Take Real, for example, who never saw their shortcomings last season until they faced Dortmund.
The simple truth is that Sebastian Kehl, at 34, cannot press like Bender, Nuri Sahin lacks the strength and versatility of Gundogan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cannot defend like Kuba and Erik Durm has almost no experience whatsoever as a defender. Dortmund will have to use a reserve team in the first leg, with just five of Klopp's first-choice XI (assuming there are no further injuries). In the second leg, only Lewandowski will return, leaving BVB with six of his best lineup.
Klopp is somewhat of a coaching genius and will surely have some tricks up his sleeve, but one can only do so much with his current squad.
At the time of the draw, there could hardly be more difficult opposition: Real have arguably a stronger squad than last year and know what to expect from their opponents. Make no mistake, this will not be a rematch, but a meeting between a similar Real and a much lesser Dortmund.
It will take a miracle for BVB to progress.