Going out of the Champions League was not the European campaign that Michael Zorc and Hans-Joachim Watzke would have envisioned at the beginning of the season. A group containing Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid and APOEL Nicosia was tough but not impossible to get through. Out of three very good teams however someone had to finish third and go into the Europa League. Borussia Dortmund were the team who ended up with the booby prize unfortunately. A tricky last-32 tie against Atalanta awaited and, while extremely awkward to navigate, victory was clinched in the end thanks to a rare Marcel Schmelzer goal in Italy and a last gasp 3-2 win at Signal Iduna Park.
What was our reward for our travails? Who would we face in the last-16 of Europe’s secondary competition? Red Bull Salzburg. You would be forgiven for thinking that this was a favourable tie for Peter Stoeger and his men. After all, they are hardly a powerhouse of European football and the Austrian Bundesliga is hardly up to the standard of its German namesake. You would be forgiven for thinking that, but you also be mistaken. Salzburg are an extremely well drilled and quality side. They are remarkably unbeaten in their previous seventeen games in continental competition and only conceded one goal during the group stages. The Europa League might be the ugly, red headed step child to the Champions League’s golden boy first born, but that does not detract from the impressive record of tonight’s opposition.
Dortmund had a taste of what was to come during their game in Leipzig on Saturday against Salzburg’s sister club. Red Bull Leipzig’s manager, Ralph Hassenhutl, was in charge of the Austrian’s in a previous life and they still play in his image – quick passing, high pressing and intense battles all over the pitch. Stoeger believes that this tie could entertaining for the neutral. “It won’t be easy, but they can’t surprise us. It could be a really entertaining game for the spectators. There are one or two things that we did well [against Red Bull Leipzig] that we can take from that game. Our objective will be to compete strongly and be dominant. We managed that well in Leipzig.”
With a ten point lead atop their domestic league, Red Bull Salzburg can concentrate solely on this game. They haven’t been this far in Europe since they reached the 1994 UEFA Cup final which they lost to Inter Milan 1-0 on aggregate over two legs. Things couldn’t be more different for BVB though. Currently sitting twenty points of pacesetters Bayern Munich, Dortmund are clearly embroiled in a battle for second place which involved at least four other teams. With that being the case every game between now and the end of the season, in all competitions, are must win games. Something the boss is only too aware of. “Each match provides substance [for returning players]. On the other hand, you need to be careful that they are not overexerted physically. We’re in close communication with the lads. If the programme is at the right level, you get into the required rhythm – and that does the lads good.”
With that in mind Peter Stoeger will not pleased to be missing players who could play but are either not fully fit or ineligible. Manuel Akanji is the former while Sebastien Rode and Raphael Guerreiro are the latter. Lukasz Piszcszek is also doubtful but Jadon Sancho has returned from injury lately and looks set to continues his recent good form.
Among our opponents tonight there is a sense of excitement. This is evident especially where the fans are concerned, as the club have already sold all 29,000+ tickets for the return leg this time next week. Players and coaches are also eagerly anticipating this game. “I am really looking forward to the meeting with Dortmund,” said defender Fredrik Gulbrandsen. He went on, “They are an absolutely top team, and we definitely aren’t going into the match as favourites. We can play with a little less pressure than usual, but we have to be prepared for an intense match, above all in Dortmund.”
Coach Marco Rose is also looking forward to this commencement of this tie. “Borussia Dortmund have extraordinary attacking quality and can form a massive attacking force that you just have to defend against,” he said. “We think that we can find the right approaches to succeed. We definitely need a perfect performance in all regards, we have to defend alertly and determinedly, and attack with plenty of courage.” Red Bull are likely to be without central midfielder Diadie Samassekou for this one due to a head injury, and striker Hee Chan Hwang. He picked up a head injury during the weekends game against Rapid Wien. Israeli striker Munas Dabbur is likely to start though and is a man Dortmund should keep an eye on.
With Dortmund’s patchy form since the turn of the year getting back in action in Europe could be just what the doctor ordered for Peter Stoeger and his boys. It is the perfect opportunity to build some momentum ahead of this weekend’s clash with top four rivals Eintracht Frankfurt. With tonight’s game being played at home it gives us the perfect opportunity to put ourselves in a good position going to Austria next week. That being said, we are playing a side previously unbeaten in seventeen European games. Maybe it won’t be quite as simple as we first thought.