A step forward
Saturday, January 31st, 2015, 6.30 pm German time. A very much anticipated date and time among the supporters of the Ballspielverein Borussia from Dortmund. Now, around 24 hours later, Borussia finds themselves on the last spot in the Bundesliga ranking after they gained a goalless draw away at Bayer 04 Leverkusen. The most important question that was asked between now and the final whistle of that game was: How much does that tie count? And what does it tell us about the path Borussia will walk on for the next 16 matches in the Bundesliga? Well, there is no right answer for these questions. Not yet. What we gained in Leverkusen was confidence. Confidence in our defense which for the first time since centuries (at least, it felt like this), we did not concede. Confidence in ourselves because the team presented some good approaches. Confidence in the hope that we will give the red lantern away just as quick as we got it. However, only time will tell. And by time, I mean next Wednesday when we face FC Augsburg at home in Westfalenstadion in a match with different portents. A match we cannot afford to lose, a match we need to win. If we win this next one, then the 0-0 at Leverkusen could be of a very big importance. If not... well, let's not think about that. Let's take a look at the Leverkusen match first and point out what went good and what needs to become better to win the battle against relegation.
Before the match
The Bundesliga came back with a big 4-1 win of VfL Wolfsburg over dominating champions Bayern Munich on Friday and with the 3.30 pm matches on Saturday giving Borussia the red lantern because SC Freiburg turned their match around against Eintracht Frankfurt and won 4-1 as well. Of course, this put some extra pressure on the lads in black and yellow who accepted the fight against relegation during the pre-season but did not really convince anyone in the friendlies even though player and staff were pretty confident about the status of the team. Unfortunately, Ilkay Gündogan could not make it back to the squad in time and left a vacant position in the defensive midfield. A spot which also misses Sven Bender and Sebastian Kehl, leaving Jürgen Klopp not too many options for the place next to Nuri Sahin. Youngster Mathias Ginter was the only and the most logical choice. Kevin Großkreutz' surprised as a starter though, joining the offensive line with Marco Reus and new signing Kevin Kampl who showed during the pre-season that he could get used to Dortmund's style of play pretty quick. Ciro Immobile was the striker, the defensive four were Marcel Schmelzer, Lukasz Piszczek and Mats Hummels and Sokratis (not Neven Subotic) as central defenders. The goalkeeper question was not a one to ask because Mitch Langerak who played the last Bundesliga matches in the first leg won the Asian Cup with the socceroos on Saturday. Congratulations, Mitch! It was the used 4-2-3-1, no experiments were made. Kuba was not in the squad because of a flu just like Durm who does individual training after his injury. Kagawa Shinji and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were back from their national teams and made it to the squad but were no options for the starting eleven. Bayer on the other hand missed Jedvaj because of an injury and Son and Kruse playing at the Asian cup as well.
Well, what is there to say about that match? During the first 15 minutes or so, you did not need to have a BA in psychology to see that the pressure has made an impact on the players of Borussia. It was a hectic start to a hectic match with many misguided passes (in the end, only 44 per cent of the Borussians found a team member) and errors. This led to Weidenfeller early needing to clear a ball after a risky Hummels pass. However, Borussia got into the match and did not concede (which was a good thing after we have seen something like that happen way too often during the first half of the season), but big opportunities were rare on both sides of the pitch. The best chance for Borussia was a one which was not a chance at all since referee Knut Kircher denied the black and yellow a free kick from a promising position. Immobile was sent on his way by Marcel Schmelzer and Bayer keeper Bernd Leno stormed out of his goal (and the penalty area). It looked like Leno played the ball with his hand when sliding out of the penalty area but Kircher decided to continue playing. This was not a scene which needs to be discussed in all of its entirety, but by doing so, we underline that there was not much happening on the pitch during the first 45 minutes. A Reus free kick from the left side was extended by a Bayer defender and missed the goal by good inches and a Sahin kick out of 19 meters had too much spin to be of a real danger for Leverkusen. On the other side, Weidenfeller saved one of Calhanoglu's free kicks and Hummels rescued for Weidenfeller just one or two meters in front of the goal line after Bellarabi had assisted Castro. Bellarabi put our defenders in front of some problems in the short period before the break in general, since a cross from the right side became dangerous and even more dangerous for us but Weidenfeller eventually saved at the cost of a corner kick.
Especially during the second half, Ciro Immobile showed a great effort. He fought for every inch of the pitch, made many runs and had some good chances – just like in minute 50 after a quick attack and gaining the ball in Bayer's half. But Immobile was not the only one who shone in black and yellow. Kevin Kampl underlined the good impressions we got about him during the pre-season friendlies and was one of the best players of Borussia and the one who made the most meters on the pitch. One may also talk about a possible penalty for BVB after Toprak pulled the arm of Ciro Immobile in the penalty area but just like in the first half, Kirch denied Borussia a promising situation. I would say it was one of these 50/50 decisions, Toprak could not have been mad at Kircher for pointing to the penalty spot however. Borussia was fortunate though that Castro did not made it 1-0 after Sokratis meant it too good and stormed out of his half in direction of Leverkusen's goal, which made him to miss in the defensive line after Borussia lost the ball. Castro was free in front of Weidenfeller, lobbed the ball over our keeper, but over the goal as well. Phew. However, this was the last big opportunity of the match which was closed by a good volley of Nuri Sahin after a corner kick from the right side.
So what is it all worth? Like mentioned before, we don't really know yet. Gaining a point without conceding away at a strong-playing side like Bayer Leverkusen looks like a step in the right direction and that is how I feel at the moment. It is not enough to make me smile all over the face (how could it, if we are still on 18?), but it is enough to travel to Dortmund on Wednesday with confidence. Confidence which I tend to loose in the minutes before the Leverkusen match. With a victory over Augsburg which could then be followed by gaining points in Freiburg and against Mainz, the world in black and yellow (and the Bundesliga rankings) would look much better. Time will tell. The good things that remain are that stability seemed to have come back to our defense, that players like Immobile or Kampl looked very good and promising for the next encounters (and several players still have the potential to improve, for example the disappointing Marco Reus) and that it looked like the team has accepted the battle against relegation, being willing to fight for every inch, just like Nuri Sahin said in an interview after the match: "Good football needs to come from other clubs now. We just need to gain points. And that is what we did tonight." Good football or not, I just hope he will be able to say something similar after the match against Augsburg – but then talking about a victory instead of a draw.
Bayer Leverkusen: Leno - Hilbert, Spahic, Toprak, Wendell - L. Bender, Castro - Bellarabi, Calhanoglu, Drmic – Kießling
Subs: Brandt for Drmic (69th), Rolfes for Calhanoglu (74th)
Borussia Dortmund: Weidenfeller - Piszczek, Sokratis, Hummels, Schmelzer - Ginter, Sahin - Kampl, Reus, Großkreutz – Immobile
Subs: Subotic for Piszczek (46th), Mkhitaryan for Großkreutz (62nd), Ramos for Immobile (81st)
Referee: Kircher (Rottenburg)
Bookings: Drmic - Schmelzer, Kampl
Attendance: 30.210 (sold-out)