Real Madrid will be out for revenge in their Champions League quarterfinal again when they take on a Borussia Dortmund team who spectacularly denied them a place in last year’s final.
Except the truth is that Madrid are not taking on that Dortmund team. Instead the Spanish giants will encounter a Borussia Dortmund unable to field a full seven players from the starting lineup that blitzed Madrid 4-1 in last year’s semifinal first leg.
One man has long since gone, with Mario Gotze’s departure for Bayern Munich famously announced the day before that encounter at the Westfalenstadion 12 months ago. But the real story of Dortmund’s disappointing season has been a constant stream of injuries. Key players such as Mats Hummels, Sebastian Kehl and Lukasz Piszczek will feature at the Bernabeu on Wednesday but have endured significant spells on the sidelines. Several others remain unavailable.
Key midfielder Ilkay Gundogan has not been seen in action since injuring his back last August, while Sven Bender, Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer, Jakub Blaszczykowski have also missed out on the trip to the Spanish capital. If that weren’t enough, the man who scored all four goals in the win over Madrid last season, Robert Lewandowski, misses out through suspension.
For a team that relies so heavily on the athleticism of its players to rapidly turn defense into attack, it is not hard to see why Jurgen Klopp’s side failed to stop Bayern Munich from retaining their Bundesliga crown before the end of March. It is also why Madrid were likely secretly happy with the identity of their opponent in the last eight.
Klopp has performed heroics on a relative shoe-string budget and with his best players being sold summer after summer, but this season has thus far proved a challenge too far.
To be sure, Klopp will still have quality players to call upon on Wednesday, in the likes of Marco Reus and Hummels. Not to mention Nuri Sahin, who will have extra motivation against the club that still owns his registration and shipped him out on loan 18 months ago after a disappointing first season at the Bernabeu.
Having been rotated out of necessity so often this season, the defense is now much shaker, however. Greece international Sokratis has not enjoyed the greatest of times since arriving last summer, while young left-back Erik Durm has had to play far often than would have been anticipated or desired in his rookie season in the first team. In the first leg of their last-16 tie against Zenit Petersburg, Dortmund looked worryingly vulnerable despite winning 4-2. An incredibly flat performance in the second leg saw Dortmund stumble through after a 2-1 defeat on home soil.
It was a further example of the absence for much of the season of the devastating free-flowing attacking play that took them to the final last season. Crucially, the front four has often failed to click in quite the same way.
In contrast, Real Madrid have improved in the last 12 months. Under Carlo Ancelotti they have more strings to their bow than just being a strict counter-attacking side. Make no mistake, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Angel di Maria they can still rip sides apart on the break. But now they can also control the game better, aided especially by the superb performances of Luka Modric alongside Xabi Alonso in midfield.
Madrid will control the first leg at home and, with their collection of attacking talent, it is difficult to see them not getting plenty of joy against a makeshift Dortmund backline.
Their lack of a commanding midfield presence without the ball can, though, still leave them vulnerable against better opponents. That issue was illustrated in the recent clash with Barcelona when Madrid looked on top for spells yet never had the game fully within their grasp. Dortmund’s fast-transitioning style is certainly equipped to take advantage of this. Yet, missing the finishing and linkup play of Lewandowski, Dortmund are likely to struggle to prevent Madrid from taking a significant advantage to Germany next week.
Prediction: Real Madrid 3-1 Borussia Dortmund
Where to watch: The first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal will kick off at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Sports 2 and Fox Soccer Plus, with a live stream available on Fox Soccer 2Go.