Juventus drew Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League Round of 16, a matchup that brings more than a little nostalgia for fans of a certain vintage. The Bianconeri and the Schwarzgelben met seven times between 1993 and 1997 in the Champions League and UEFA Cup, with the Old Lady winning four (including all three meetings in Dortmund), drawing once, and losing the two most recent meetings.
The most recent meeting happened in the biggest club game of them all, the 1997 Champions League final, which featured two of the greatest goals ever scored on such a stage, Alessandro Del Piero's backheel and Lars Ricken's first-time lob. Karl-Heinz Riedle scored the first two goals for BVB in Munich that day, and it was the very same (now-retired) striker who drew the two clubs together this time around.
For the past five years Jürgen Klopp's team has been among the very best in Europe. But the side now find themselves in real relegation danger. Dortmund have lost more league games than anyone else in the Bundesliga this year. And with 15 goals forced and 22 against after 15 matches, it's clear that there has been a major drop in level all over the pitch. They have conceded late goals by the hatful, and made very hard work of scoring their chances, with Robert Lewandowski's eye for goal sorely missed after his summer move to Bayern München. But Dortmund have experienced far more desperate times in the recent past, and the memory of those hard times has contributed to massive fan support, for the coach and the players, despite this dire domestic run.
After years of mismanagement and poor results, including a stretch so bad that hated rivals Bayern Munich pitched in €2 million to help pay salaries, Klopp was hired in 2008 and breathed new life into the sleeping giant. The Stuttgart-born coach reinvigorated the side with a keen eye for young talent and a fast-paced style of play that began to pay dividends almost immediately; the club finished 6th and 5th in his first two seasons before taking the league by storm in 2010/11. A second consecutive championship for the Dortmund side — along with a 5-2 victory over Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal final — set the alarm bells ringing in Munich, and massive investment was eventually able to knock the Black-and-Yellow down to second in 2012/13 and 2013/14.
The Champions League has also seen some of the best of Jürgen Klopp's winning machine. After a year of growing pains when they were eliminated in the 2011/12 group stage, Borussia have played Real Madrid in the latter stages each of the last two seasons, winning the semifinal and setting up a Der Klassiker with Bayern in the 2013 final and falling 3-2 on aggregate to Carlo Ancelotti's eventual winners last time around. This season's Champions League has been something of an escape for Klopp's side, who won their first four games in their group before falling 2-0 to Arsenal and being pegged back to a 1-1 draw with Anderlecht. Perhaps the different pressures of Champions League play have allowed the side to feel less pressure and more excitement, maybe the feeling that Bayern are unstoppable has dampened domestic spirits. Whatever the case, Borussia Dortmund remain a team that can absolutely trouble the best in the world, as shown by their 2-0 win over Pep Guardiola's Bayern in the German Supercup this summer.
Tactically, this year has seen BVB experiment with a diamond midfield after years of exclusively playing an aggressive, wing-driven 4-2-3-1. Injuries have taken a serious tole on the roster, with Ilkay Gündoğan, Mats Hummels, and Marco Reus all missing significant parts of the season. An aging core does not have the legs it once did. Replacements brought in for top-class players like Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski have underwhelmed, and players returning from moves abroad like Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa have shown the form that made them flop in Spain and England, rather than the exceptional play that earned them moves in the first place.
But even with all these excuses the rot seems to run deeper, with one bad result leading to another and every player, with the exception of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, playing well below the level they've shown in past years. Perhaps the best example of this crisis in confidence is Robert Weidenfeller, previously the untouchable No. 1 in goal, being sent to the bench by Mitchell Langerak.
Despite all of these problems, Borussia Dortmund still have a squad and coach thoroughly capable of turning things around in Germany and going far in the Champions League. Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan should be back for the first leg on February 24th, while Mats Hummels, Neven Subotić and Ilkay Gündoğan have already returned to the squad. The six-week winter break in Germany should give Klopp time to stiffen up the defensive movements and fine-tune the attack, something that may have been lacking in the summer given the amount of new recruits, including Juventus youth product Ciro Immobile, and squad members who were either at the World Cup or missing through injury.
One aspect that may play in Juventus' favor is Max Allegri's recent shift to a four-man defense. The obvious weakness of a 3-5-2 is the lack of cover for the wingbacks, who can be forced deep by attacking wingers leaving fullbacks lots of time and space to cross. Atlético Madrid exploited this in the first group-stage match, while Galatasaray and of course Bayern Munich also found joy crossing from wide positions against Juventus. Dortmund have the wingers and flying fullbacks to create the same type of problems, but with Juventus' own set of midfielders in positions to provide natural cover for their fullbacks, as well as the improved form of Leonardo Bonucci, it shouldn't be nearly the issue it was in years past.
With the first leg in Turin still over two months away, there is every chance of seeing a highly competitive Borussia Dortmund that has recovered the incisiveness and defensive solidity that have been in short supply so far this year. Bookmakers see the tie as very evenly balanced, which given some of the teams Juventus could have drawn is certainly welcome. It could have been worse news today for the Old Lady, but Jürgen Klopp's Dortmund, despite sitting 16th in the Bundesliga, will provide a stern test for Massimiliano Allegri's men. Aside from the excitement on the park it will surely be one of the noisiest Champions League ties, with both the Juventus Stadium and Signal Iduna Park/ Westfalenstadion renowned for their atmospheres. It's just a shame we have to wait so long.
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