Borussia Dortmund host FC Porto in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League round of 32 on Thursday.
The Bundesliga club failed to win their group in the Europa League thanks to an unnecessary 1-0 loss at FC Krasnodar in late November and got their comeuppance with one of the toughest draws possible.
Porto, meanwhile, dropped down from the Champions League, where they came in third in a group with Chelsea, Dynamo Kiev and Maccabi Tel Aviv. A 2-0 loss at Stamford Bridge on the final matchday of the group stage sealed the Dragons' fate.
Dortmund have started well in the new calendar year in terms of results, but they have yet to find their groove consistently performance-wise. They are unbeaten in five games in 2016, with only one draw, and are coming off a 1-0 victory over Hannover 96 at the weekend.
The Black and Yellows have not put a real emphasis on the Europa League this season so far, not once playing a true first-choice XI, but that is bound to change with the knockout stages beginning.
Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan tweeted this week that he's "looking forward to Thursday when the Europa League is 'really' starting for us!"
The visitors haven't enjoyed the best start to 2016, which has resulted in the firing of head coach Julen Lopetegui.
Per football writer Tom Kundert, however, "results did not improve under interim coach Rui Barros, or the new man at the helm, Jose Peseiro."
Perhaps the somewhat surprising 2-1 win in the Estadio da Luz over rivals Benfica at the weekend can serve as a springboard to their campaign.
Thursday will mark the first meeting between these two clubs. The Black and Yellows have, however, "won each of their three home games against Portuguese opposition, scoring ten goals in the process," per the club's official website, while Porto "have won three, drawn four and lost seven on German soil."
Date: Thursday, February 18
Time: 6 p.m. GMT/1 p.m. ET/7 p.m. local time
Venue: Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund
TV Info: BT Sport Extra 2 (UK only)/ESPN Deportes (U.S. only, Tape delay)
Live Stream: BT Sport live streaming (UK only)/Fox Soccer 2Go, Watch ESPN (U.S. only)
|Gladbach: Win (3-1)||Maritimo: Win (1-0)|
|Ingolstadt: Win (2-0)||Estoril: Win (3-1)|
|Hertha: Draw (0-0)||Gil Vicente: Win (3-0)|
|Stuttgart: Win (3-1)||Arouca: Loss (2-1)|
|Hannover: Win (1-0)||Benfica: Win (2-1)|
Possible starting XI: Burki; Piszczek, Sokratis, Hummels, Schmelzer; Gundogan, Ginter, Castro; Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang, Reus.
Roman Weidenfeller, head coach Thomas Tuchel's first-choice goalkeeper for the Europa League, is battling a nasty cold, per Thomas Hennecke of sport magazine Kicker (link in German), and his availability for the game seems doubtful. Roman Burki would keep his spot between the sticks.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will return to the lineup, which means Marco Reus can move to his usual position on the wing. Shinji Kagawa will likely lose his spot in the XI as a consequence, with Gonzalo Castro set to move into a more central position in midfield.
Elsewhere, Julian Weigl could play instead of Matthias Ginter in defensive midfield.
The most interesting battle pertains the spot next to Mats Hummels in central defence, however.
Tuchel rested Greece international Sokratis Papastathopoulos against Hannover and Neven Subotic played a great match in his place, as the graphic from stat provider Opta below shows, so it wouldn't be too surprising to see the Serbian keep his spot.
Possible starting XI: Casillas; Angel, Martins Indi, Verdasca, Layun; Herrera, Neves; Corona, Andre, Brahimi; Aboubakar.
Unlike Tuchel, Peseiro will be forced to make a number of changes. Right-back Maxi Pereira and midfielder Danilo Pereira are suspended for the first encounter with Dortmund, while central defender Ivan Marcano is an injury doubt.
Migel Layun will likely move to the right side of defence, with Jose Angel coming in at left-back, while 18-year-old Ruben Neves is the logical replacement for Danilo.
The big question is who'll play next to Bruno Martins Indi in central defence. Nineteen-year-old Diogo Verdasca looks like the best bet, seeing as Chidozie Awaziem, who played there against Benfica, is ineligible.
Porto can, however, rely on their usual attacking force, although "Peseiro will surely have to subdue his naturally attacking instincts and opt for a cautious approach, which could translate into something akin to a 4-2-3-1," per Kundert.
As tactics blogger Constantin Eckner detailed, that formation seems to help them anyway: "Porto is one of the few sides that looks more dangerous playing a symmetric 4-2-3-1 formation. Their consistent lack
of vertical compactness has less impact when fielding two centre-midfielders in front of the back line."
Players to Watch
The return of star striker Aubameyang will be a big boost to a Dortmund side that looked surprisingly toothless against last-placed Hannover in the Bundesliga at the weekend.
The Gabonese scored four goals in only 254 minutes of playing time during the group stage, including a hat-trick at Azerbaijani side FK Qabala, and will provide a big test to Porto's makeshift defence.
The man tasked with stopping Aubameyang, Iker Casillas is undoubtedly one of the greatest to play between the sticks, but the Spaniard is hardly the imposing figure in goal he was in his prime a few years ago.
He can still get it done, however, as he showed with a brilliant performance against Benfica, where he was the main reason the Dragons beat the league leaders.
Football writer Jan Hagen noted Casillas' strong showing during the game on Twitter:
Marcel Schmelzer vs. Jesus Corona
Mexico international Jesus Corona is an unenviable matchup for any full-back. The diminutive winger is incredibly quick and a good technician, who has already scored seven goals in the Liga NOS after moving to Portugal from Dutch side FC Twente late in the 2015 summer transfer window.
Marcel Schmelzer undeniably is playing an impressive season so far, but he tends to struggle against strong dribblers coming right at him. The 28-year-old is clearly stronger physically, but he could find it tough keeping tabs on Corona, who likes to move around quite a bit on the pitch.
Porto's Makeshift Back Line vs. Dortmund's Attack
Suspensions, injuries and the cloak-and-dagger operation that was the loan of Brazilian defender Maicon to FC Sao Paulo "after a goal-costing mistake and subsequently walking off the pitch, apparently injured, in a shock 2-1 home defeat to Arouca," per Kundert, leave Porto with a defence in shambles.
Dortmund will try to make the most of it in their home game against the Portuguese giants. It will take a real improvement from their recent performances in the league, however, which we detailed in this earlier piece.
If the Black and Yellows fail to capitalise on Porto's makeshift back line, they will have a tough time advancing to the next round in the return leg at the Estadio do Dragao, where Bayern Munich lost 3-1 in last year's Champions League quarter-finals.
Odds (via Oddschecker)