Most years BVB fans can look at the Europa League field and comfortably say that Dortmund would be the favorites to win the competition. But this is no ordinary Europa League and this is no ordinary Dortmund team. Teams vying for the crown include traditional Champions League staples like Arsenal & Atletico Madrid, Serie A leading Napoli, and a Leipzig squad that’s already beaten the Black and Yellows once this year. Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed yet, BVB aren’t nearly as strong a side as they’ve been the past couple of years. Nonetheless let’s look forward to European football in the ruckrunde by previewing the Atalanta matchup then breaking down the larger field if (Stoger please) Borussia move into the round of 16.
Peek at Atalanta
Atalanta are something of a darling team in Serie A right now. They’ve quickly moved from Serie B to a European spot and are sitting comfortably upper mid table right now. Up and down the roster though BVB should be confident they have a more talented player at every position, even as the Italians are far more in form. They haven’t lost in anywhere in over a month. Moreover, with smaller sides with less depth like Atalanta, the Europa league is often sacrificed for league positioning. Not the case here. They’ve stormed through European competition so far, topping their group and beating back Premier League challengers Everton by a whopping 8-1 score over two legs. Besides their torrid form the Bergamo based side could also present some stylistic challenges to the black and yellows.
This season Dortmund have struggled against two kinds of sides: those that can be effective on the “counter” and those that can dominate the midfield. Argentine striker Alejandro Gomez is as fast as anyone and mighty clinical but Atalanta as a team don’t look to counter very often. They averaged only 0.3 shots per game on the counter in the group stage and a comical 0.1 in Serie A. All the better with a BVB side that’s struggled against the counter over the past 3 coaches now. But, Atalanta will look to dominate the midfield. In almost every game they line up with five in the middle to control the ball and overrun the opposition. We’ve struggled against similar formations already this season in losses at Hannover and Stuttgart. Not to mention Atalanta have won every European game this season where they’ve had at least half the possession.
Ultimately though for Dortmund, this tie is going to come down to health and prioritization. BVB has seen almost every position thinned but a few key players stand out in particular. Marco Reus tops the list as arguably our most talented player when fit. Optimistic estimates have him returning in January which should give some buffer time to the games against Atalanta in mid-February. He’ll fill out the attack with Pulisic and Aubameyang especially since Phillip is injured and Yarmolenko/Schurrle have disappointed. Götze could also return in time for Atalanta which would provide more than enough firepower against an Italian side still trying to recover from losing most of their defense to Milan. If Dortmund are so fortunate as to get Piszczek back as well, the black and yellows shouldn’t have much trouble moving into the round of 16.
More importantly, we should also be able to put a heavy emphasis on the Europa league since it’s the only chance for a trophy this season and there are only two campaigns remaining. This is a team built to play in three competitions deep into the year so there’s more than enough depth. The Atalanta games also come at a relatively light portion of the Bundesliga schedule as well. A miserable Hamburg team averaging less than a goal a game comes before the first leg. Gladbach, which BVB embarrassed 6-1 in the hinrunde is squeezed between the two legs and average at best Augsburg comes after the second leg. I wouldn’t be surprised if Stoger ends up saving our strongest lineups for the Europa league. Assuming we make it past Atalanta let’s take a look at what the rest of the competition has in store.
Talented Europa League
At least four teams in this year’s Europa League are talented enough to compete with any squad in the world. At least a few more are capable of an upset against the favorites. The favorites are of course Dortmund (humor my Bosch drained confidence), Napoli, Atletico Madrid, and Arsenal.
Napoli are currently top of Serie A above Juventus with a front line capable of cutting through a defense. Dries Mertens is still as advertised, Hamsik just broke Maradona’s club goal record, and Insigne has created a ridiculous 44 chances in Serie A already. The defense is also no joke with the steady Koulibaly leading a physical defense that concedes less than a goal a game. They crashed out after underperforming in the Champions League and running into the Manchester City buzzsaw.
Moving to Spain, we’re much more accustomed to seeing Atleti in the Champions League semifinals but they’re still having a great year. They’re five points above city rivals Real and second only to the Barca machine. Griezmann still leads the line and Simeone still directs a Godin organized defense. The core of this team is essentially unchanged from Atleti’s past UCL contending teams with talent at every level of the pitch. You wouldn’t be surprised to see them lift the trophy in Lyon come May.
In London, Arsenal may be a big name but like us they’re having a bit of a disappointing season. North London rivals, Tottenham lie above them in the table as do both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, and Liverpool. They’re still waiting for Alexis and Ozil to kick into high gear but no one doubts the talent on this team.
Beyond the big boys, teams like Leipzig, Lazio, Milan, and Villarreal could all make a storied run a la Ajax last year. Indeed, this year’s Europa League is dark and full of terrors but let us hope that the light of Stoger and good health will lead Borussia Dortmund to the only trophy we don’t already have.