Four weeks without competitive football are over, 2017 is set to kick off in earnest for Borussia Dortmund. A trip to northern Germany to face Werder Bremen is the first part of an 18-match “catch-up mission” to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, as head coach Thomas Tuchel put it on Friday.
Despite it being the last matchday of the Hinrunde, the Bremen match represents the start of the second half of the season. A disappointing sixth in the table, the Black and Yellows will look to make up some ground on the competition, starting with the match at the Westerstadion on Saturday.
If friendly matches during the winter break are any indication, Dortmund enter the weekend in decisively better form than the hosts. Whereas BVB peat PSV Eindhoven, Standard Liege and SC Paderborn by a composite score of 13-2 goals, Werder failed to win a single of their three test matches, even losing the final dress rehearsal against 2. Bundesliga side Eintracht Braunschweig last weekend.
That said, Dortmund’s defensive performances in those three friendly wins weren’t overly convincing. After conceding 19 goals on the first 16 matchdays, finding a new defensive awareness and stability was Tuchel’s top priority during the winter, but it very much remains a work in progress.
Bremen, of course, are somewhat of an extreme version of Dortmund, having a solid attack led by Fin Bartels, Serge Gnabry, Max Kruse and Claudio Pizarro but a horrendous defence that allowed 34 goals this season so far. It cost Viktor Skripnik his job and, while caretaker-turned-permanent manager Alexander Nouri hasn’t brought immediate success going by the table — they’re 15th, just three points ahead of the drop zone — he has stabilised the team.
Werder last lost in November and ended 2016 with a run of five unbeaten games, despite facing solid opposition in Cologne, Hertha BSC and 1899 Hoffenheim.
Unlike Dortmund, Saturday’s hosts have added a player in the winter, signing midfielder Thomas Delaney from Copenhagen. The Denmark international is likely to slot right into the starting XI, replacing the injured Philipp Bargfrede ahead of the back line. Nouri will hope the 25-year-old can serve as a shield in front of his suspect back four and veteran goalkeeper Jaroslav Drobny.
Bremen will also be without midfielders Zlatko Junuzovic and Florian Grillitsch, two very important figures in connecting defence and attack. Without them, the team could sit deep and hope to hit Dortmund on the counter. With the quickness of Gnabry and the intelligend movement of Pizarro and Kruse, they will still be dangerous without much notice.
Dortmund will once again be without regular No. 1 ‘keeper Roman Bürki, who had missed the final seven matches across competitions in 2016 after breaking his hand in BVB’s Bundesliga win against Bayern Munich in November. Tuchel confirmed the Switzerland international will make his comeback in a friendly against RW Erfurt on Sunday, making him a candidate to play against FSV Mainz on Matchday 18.
The centre-back pairing ahead of Weidenfeller is yet to be determined by the time of this writing. Sven Bender is out indefinitely with an ankle injury he suffered against Paderborn, while defensive leader Sokratis Papastatopoulos missed some time with an ankle injury himself but participated in the final training session on Friday.
If the Greece international can play, he’d likely form a partnership with Matthias Ginter, who for the time being has overtaken Marc Bartra in the pecking order at centre-back.
Ousmane Dembele is also questionable for the starting XI. Like Sokratis, he participated in training on Friday but given the team’s depth at his position it’d seem logical if he came off the bench. He’ll be joined there by Raphael Guerreiro, who looked strong in his first two substitute appearances after overcoming somewhat mysterious muscle problems that had kept him out of more than half of Dortmund’s matches across competitions so far this season.
Up front, Andre Schürrle is set to start in place of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is on Africa Cup of Nations duty with Gabon. Back-up striker Adrian Ramos will leave Dortmund in the current transfer window.
Predicted Starting XI: Weidenfeller; Piszczek, Bartra, Ginter, Schmelzer; Weigl; Reus, Kagawa, Castro, Götze; Schürrle.