Thursday night, Europa League round of 16-second leg, Red Bull Salzburg, away. Wasn’t much fun, was it? To be quite fair, the whole European experience hasn’t been nice to watch this season. Out of the Champions League in the group stages, struggled against Atalanta in the round of 32 in the Europa League and eventually dumped out by a dogged but ultimately beatable Salzburg side. Peter Bosz was supposed to bring the experience of getting to last season’s final with him to Dortmund. When that failed it was practically damage limitation for the campaign for Peter Stoeger. Even then the mission statement was clear – Champions League qualification and decent showing in the Europa League. Above all else, be respectable. At least one of those aims hasn’t been achieved.
The Salzburg game could have massive repercussion for many personnel in the long term. It’s clear that Stoeger himself is being judged and his contract may not be extended beyond the end of the season when it runs out. Players too are under scrutiny. While Michy Batshuayi has done himself no harm for either his parent club or BVB, players like Andre Schurrle and Sokratis Papastathopoulos look like they could be on their way in the summer. Stoeger needed a reaction once again from his players. He needed to see that Salzburg was a blip, that their European tribulations can be confined to the continent and not brought into domestic situations. He needed a win against Hannover on Sunday.
It never looked in doubt, from the first minute to the last. The game was practically played in the opponents half for the first period. Hannover couldn’t escape. Win it in midfield, get it wide and drive into the box. If a winger doesn’t get an attempt then Batshuayi probably will. It seems one dimensional, but that wasn’t exactly the case. Pulisic was the wider of the two, stretching the play and dragging men out towards him. He didn’t even have to do anything special. Defences are now so scared of him that their attentions are always on him, he’s always at the back of their minds. He forces mistakes even when he isn’t involved in the play. He’s still only nineteen years old.
Andre Schurrle. If anyone needed a performance it was this man. He hasn’t had the best of times so far this season and has been in a nearly throughout his career. Nearly made it at Chelsea, nearly won the league with Wolfsburg, nearly as good as Marco Reus. He’s nearly out the door at Signal Iduna Park and it is looking increasingly likely that that will be the case in the summer, but performances like his one on Sunday will do no harm to his chances of finding a good club or getting the club a good price. He worked hard, he looked lively, he went wide, he came inside – for forty-five minutes on Sunday Hannover had no answers for the questions Shurrle was asking. For those who didn’t know, that’s what Andre Schurrle can bring to your team.
Then there was Batman. This is now eight goals since his loan move from Chelsea. Has a striker ever looked so confident? He is oozing the stuff at the minute, you’re practically able to scrape it off him game after game. He looks sharp, he looks quick, he looks intelligent, he looks everything they said he wasn’t in West London. Two things could happen at the end of the season; either Chelsea are going to get a hell of striker back who has the best learning experience in another league, or Dortmund are going to buy a hell of a striker having had a six month test drive, safe in the knowledge he can definitely do the business. This could not just be great business this season but for many seasons to come if Batshuayi signs permanently in the summer.
It wasn’t the perfect performance by all means. The fact still remains that quick counter attacks and runs through the back line catch Dortmund out far, far too easily (this seems like Groundhog Day for me). However, even with shaky centre-halves, we still have two veteran full-backs that would get into most Bundesliga teams. Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek might just be two of the most under-rated players in Europe since the turn of the decade but thank god for that, because they would probably have moved on if anyone would have realised their quality. They rarely make poor decisions and have now taken to talking their respective centre-halves through games. Manuel Akanji certainly benefitted from playing alongside Schmelzer on Sunday. Imagine him in a couple of years time, with that pace, power and intelligence. It’s a scary thought.
As I said, this wasn’t an A* performance. There were deficiencies and there will be for quite some time. The scars of Europe will live with us until the end of the season at least and there will be casualties. But not all is lost. There is still a lot to play for and, on Sunday at least, BVB showed they have the stomach for the fight.