Borussia Dortmund won the first leg of the UEFA Europa League round-of-32 matchup with Serie A side Atalanta on Thursday. Winter loan signing Michy Batshuayi was again front and centre of the win for the hosts, with the Belgian scoring in stoppage time to complete Dortmund’s comeback.
Lineup: Bürki; Piszczek, Sokratis, Toprak, Toljan; Weigl, Castro; Pulisic, Reus, Schürrle; Batshuayi.
Head coach Peter Stöger made two changes to his winning side from the Hamburg match in the Bundesliga, with Sokratis Papasthopoulos coming back into the starting XI for Manuel Akanji, who is not eligible in the Europa League, and Gonzalo Castro replacing the injured Shinji Kagawa. It meant a second consecutive start for Marco Reus following his eight-month injury layoff, with the Germany international playing a role somewhere between a No. 10 and a secondary striker.
It was a nervous start to the game for both sides, who misplaced a fair amount of passes in all areas of the pitch. Dortmund were more forceful going forward, with Reus sliding a first chance just wide of the left post after a nicely weighted through ball from Andre Schürrle six minutes into the game.
Both teams managed to get into the final third predominantly after picking up loose balls and misplaced passes, with the hosts being more dangerous. Schürrle in particular looked lively, firing four shots in the first 45 minutes, the first of which kissed the post after a slight deflection.
Dortmund gained more control halfway through the first period, even though Atalanta actually ended up with more possession than the hosts. Thirty minutes into the match, BVB made their growing dominance count after a quick attack which Batshuayi initiated by muscling the ball away from an Atalanta midfielder close to his own penalty box.
The Belgian forward released Lukasz Piszczek on the right side, with the veteran full-back playing a delicate low pass to Schürrle in the area. His first touch almost let the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner down, but he managed to get his foot to the rebound and slot home to give his side a deserved lead.
Atalanta looked a bit flustered by going behind and failed to contribute much going forward until the half-time whistle. The game picked up in intensity, however, and a number of crunching challenges followed. Julian Weigl picked up a third booking in European competitions this seasons and will miss the second leg.
Dortmund sleepwalked for a while after intermission and paid a hefty prise. First, Jeremy Toljan inexplicably had to cover two attackers in a centre-back position during a Leonardo Spinazzola cross from the left and promptly made a horrific positioning error. It allowed Josip Ilicic the time and space to deftly pluck the ball out of the air and slot it coolly past Roman Bürki into the far corner.
The Slovenian doubled his account five minutes later, touching a rebound home after Bürki could only spill a Bryan Cristante shot towards the middle of the box.
Stöger reacted to his side’s apparent crumbling with a substitution, bringing on Mario Götze for the somewhat ineffective Reus at the hour mark. This would prove to be the match-deciding move and it paid immediate dividends.
Götze assisted Batshuayi after a fine one-two with Schürrle in the left half-space, the Belgian firing home with authority to tie the game up again.
Atalanta were clearly content with the scoreline away from home and focussed on defending after their quick double strike, which put the onus on Dortmund to break a well-organised block down.
To their credit, the hosts kept going at it even though they rarely put a dent in Atalanta’s wall, with Batshuayi’s strike the last real scoring chance until the end of regular time. That Dortmund managed to nick it late was down to the individual brilliance of Götze and the cold-bloodedness of their new cult hero Batshuayi.
Rafael Toloi had cleared a Piszczek cross away to supposed safety, only for Götze to one-touch it to his striker with an incredible show of awareness and technical ability. Batshuayi did what good strikers do, turned himself into shooting position and finished beyond Etrit Berisha’s reach with his right foot, scoring his fifth goal in only three matches since joining Dortmund.
It looked like a typical Dortmund performance in Europe this season, where some decent beginnings seemed to be undone by a few minutes of utter chaos including woeful individual and group-tactical mistakes. The Black and Yellows deserve credit for fighting their way back to a late win.
However, this was another match under Stöger where Dortmund got a better result than their performance necessarily called for, a trend that is sure to come to an end eventually.
It must be noted that Dortmund were somewhat lucky with a few refereeing decisions, as Atalanta should arguably have had a penalty in the 53rd minute (Toprak hitting Ilicic with his feet while the attacker was in the air) and Weigl was fortunate not to be sent off a couple of times in the second half. Then again, Atalanta’s first goal should not have counted because of a clear offside situation in the buildup.
Ultimately, the visitors will be okay with a one-goal deficit and two crucial away goals, while Dortmund will take encouragement from their show of grit and determination and the fact that they created a decent amount of chances against a side that prides itself on organisation.
Yellow Wall Game Ball: Michy Batshuayi
While this writer would argue that Götze put in the best performance in the game, Batshuayi’s involvement in all three goals cannot be overlooked. The 24-year-old’s loan move to the Westfalenstadion is already a slam dunk for all parties involved.