On Saturday, Borussia Dortmund will travel to BayArena to play Bayer Leverkusen in what will be a six-pointer against a direct opponent for UEFA Champions League spots.
The DFL has scheduled the matchup in BayArena as the Bundesliga Topspiel on Saturday evening. Both Dortmund and Die Werkself have the ambition to finish in a direct Champions League spot. The Black and Yellows are on schedule after winning four out of five league matches and sit in second place, but Leverkusen, are heading into Matchday 6 only in 10th place.
Roger Schmidt’s side only won two of the first five league matches, narrowly beating Mainz on the road thanks to a Chicharito hat-trick on the previous matchday. While BVB battled back twice against Real Madrid to feel somewhat upbeat about their 2-2 draw, Leverkusen had to swallow a stoppage-time equaliser in Monaco, which adds to the narrative of a stuttering start for the Rhinelanders.
Classic Neverkusen, one might say.
In July, the club was full of confidence ahead of the season. “I feel this will be our best season,” head coach Schmidt said, while headlines suggested that Bayer have ‘their best squad ever’. Whether the current squad is actually better than their 2001/2002 outfit that entailed the likes of Hans Jörg Butt, Lúcio, Zé Roberto, Michael Ballack, Dimitar Berbatov and Oliver Neuville is a debate for another day.
However, Schmidt’s team hardly lost any key players over the summer. Dortmund were denied in their attempts to poach central defender Ömer Toprak and Karim Bellarabi, who will miss Saturday’s match due to a ligament injury. With Aleksandar Dragovic, Kevin Volland and Julian Baumgartlinger, an already potent squad gained even more quality, which allowed them to head into the season with confidence.
On Saturday night, one could argue, Leverkusen’s season may see itself already at a tipping point. “We want to reduce the gap to Dortmund,” sporting director Rudi Völler said in July, referring to the 15 point margin that Die Schwarzgelben slapped on his team last season. After five matchdays, the gap is already at five points and it doesn’t take a mathematician to realise that it could be either two or eight depending on the outcome.
Tuchel probably won’t write a massive eight on his flip board ahead of the match to motivate his team, as it’s not his style. Nevertheless, putting eight points between themselves and a major rival early in the season would make things a lot easier. Looking at previous matches, Dortmund certainly had Leverkusen’s number at the BayArena. They are unbeaten in the 30.000 seater next to the pharmaceutical factories in nine years. The hosts, meanwhile, are unbeaten in seven home matches across campaigns, but all that will be irrelevant when referee Manuel Gräfe blows the opening whistle at 6.30 CET.
Whoever recuperated best from the Champions League efforts will have a good chance of winning the match. “We have to acknowledge the strain of the Champions League, which is why we gave another day off on Thursday. It already paid off on Friday morning as we trained on a very high level,” Tuchel said in Friday’s news conference ahead of the game.
He will have to make do without André Schürrle, who is once again sidelined with a knee-injury after scoring an absolute screamer of an equaliser against Los Blancos. Tuchel also revealed that the match will come too soon for Marc Bartra, who entered team training too early after picking up an abductor injury against Wolfsburg, nor will Adrian Ramos be available. “Marco Reus is yet to train with a ball at his feet, but is further ahead on his schedule than Sven Bender, who is wearing a splint around his foot,” the Dortmund coach said regarding his personnel. No comment on Erik Durm, who won’t return before the turn of the year after knee surgery.
Even with a couple of players sidelined, Tuchel still has a plethora of options to pick a starting XI that has the quality to grab a result at BayArena. It will be interesting to see whether the extra day of rest was enough for the likes of Mario Götze, Julian Weigl and Raphael Guerreiro. Against Schmidt’s high-octane pressing Dortmund will want to have as much pressing resistance on the field as possible. What can happen if Sebastian Rode and Gonzalo Castro, who don’t handle pressure all too well, play in midfield was visible in the 1-0 defeat against RB Leipzig, which was the Ruhr side’s worst performance of the season.
Tuchel also has the option to field some players that will add much-needed freshness to the team. Shinji Kagawa could be one of those options. The Japanese only featured in 26 minutes against Darmstadt in BVB’s last five matches. Felix Passlack could replace Lukasz Piszczek at right-back and team up with Christian Pulisic, who made his starting debut for Dortmund in this very fixture last season, as he was part of the team that narrowly beat Leverkusen 1-0 in a match nobody will nor should remember barring the players themselves.
It will be very much up to Tuchel how this match will pan out for the spectators. Dortmund managed to complete the double over the Rhinelanders in the previous season, most interestingly in two entirely different approaches.
In the 3-0 home victory in September 2015, BVB dispatched Leverkusen in style, as they intelligently played out their pressing lines with a lob-sided buildup play and a master class of a performance from Weigl. The reverse fixture in February was crammed between UEFA Europa League ties against FC Porto and, as mentioned earlier, the 43-year-old opted for a heavily rotated team with a robust midfield. In essence, Dortmund answered Leverkusen’s chaotic and direct style with a similar game plan which resulted in a match resembling the computer game Pong – and not in a good way.
In the end, the three points will justify the means. As Castro, who spent 16 years of his career at Leverkusen said, a win will be important to keep up with the top. After all it would be very Bayer Leverkusen-esque if the excitement of a title race was to come at their expense.
Predicted lineup: Bürki; Passlack, Sokratis, Ginter, Schmelzer; Weigl; Pulisic, Götze, Kagawa, Guerreiro; Aubameyang.