Champions League

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Malaga, Dortmund aim to defy odds

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Malaga's Isco and Borussia Dortmund's Mario Gotze are the focal points for each team.
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Thomas Hautmann

Thomas Hautmann is an editor and contributing writer to FOXSoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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The quarterfinal stage of the UEFA Champions League is where the last few underdogs are weeded out and the usual suspects emerge. But for Malaga CF and Borussia Dortmund, (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Wednesday, 2 P.M. ET) neither label really applies.

Dortmund disappointed in last season’s campaign, but this year’s squad elevated itself from the Group of Death’s dark horse to a bonafide challenger after an array of impressive performances. New kid on the block Malaga fits the role of traditional underdog, but after going undefeated in the group stage— and AC Milan and Zenit were hardly considered slouches— then disposing of Champions League veterans Porto, they’ve proven they belonged.

Now, on Wednesday, the two clubs will tussle it out for a spot in Europe’s version of the “Final Four.” With no trophies left to play for domestically, a semifinal spot would be the highpoint of either club’s season. Malaga will look to continue its magical debut campaign, while Dortmund is aching for its first semifinal since 1998, the year after they won it all.

This matchup is all about its young stars. Three of the world’s finest talents are on show—Malaga’s Isco on the one side, Dortmund’s Mario Gotze and Marco Reus on the other.

For Malaga, Isco has been a one-man-show this season. The 20-year old is hardly a secret: he won the Golden Boy Award in December, given annually to Europe’s best player under the age of 21. Isco is following in the footsteps of former winners Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Mario Balotelli and, ironically, his opponent on Wednesday in Gotze.

Isco’s three goals and three assists have accounted for almost half of Malaga’s 14 goals in the European campaign. In La Liga, he leads the team with eight goals. That, however, points to the team’s problem—who else is going to score for Los Boquerones?

Target man and second-leading scorer Javier Saviola is in poor form—just two goals in 2013 for the Argentinian—and neither Roque Santa Cruz nor Sebastian Fernandez should make Dortmund’s stout defense quiver. Malaga’s midfield and defense is strong enough to defend a lead, but it will fall on Isco to go get them one. If he fails to deliver, Malaga may be in trouble.

Dortmund, meanwhile, doesn’t have goal-scoring issues, and much of it has to do with their two starlets. Gotze has four goals and two assists in the Champions League, while Reus has netted three times. In the Bundesliga, the pair has combined for 18 goals and 13 assists so far. The play between them has been so harmonious since Reus joined Dortmund last summer that it’s already earned them their own nickname—“M&M.”

The biggest beneficiary from the dynamic duo has been Robert Lewandowski, who on Saturday extended a club record for scoring in nine straight Bundesliga games. OK, it’s not quite up to Messi’s nineteen game scoring streak, but with 26 goals to his credit in all competitions, Lewandowski is on the short list of Europe’s most efficient strikers, and completes a lethal attacking trio that the legendary Franz Beckenbauer deemed “the best trio in the world” earlier this season.

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The rest of Dortmund’s team is also more balanced than the Spaniards’. Mats Hummels needs little introduction, being one of the most-coveted central defenders in Europe at the moment. Ditto for Lukasz Piszczek in the fullback role, and Jakub “Kuba” Blaszczykowski on the wing. Midfield motor Ilkay Gundogan has impressed enough for multiple critics to say he might unseat Bastian Schweinsteiger in next year’s World Cup squad. And then there’s always Nuri Sahin, the comeback kid and Jurgen Klopp’s new ace on the bench.

Still, this tie will hinge on the teams’ bright young stars, the usual suspects. And in the end, it might just come down to which team has more of them.

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