MADRID — Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund go into Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu from different directions, but both are now looking to save seasons that have not gone to plan.
Madrid are still fighting to win the Champions League, Copa del Rey and La Liga, but there is a strange sense of gloom around the club. Supporters who were sure of an historic treble success have been stung by successive defeats to Barcelona and Sevilla which have sent Real from being clear favorites to rank outsiders in the Spanish title race.
Even as the team hammered Rayo Vallecano 5-0 last Saturday evening, sections of the Bernabeu fans whistled coach Carlo Ancelotti, goalkeeper Diego Lopez, last summer’s galactico signing Gareth Bale, and even reigning Ballon D’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo. This restlessness among the locals has meant Ancelotti and club president Florentino Perez have had to re-double their focus on winning the club’s long awaited ‘decima,’ the tenth European Cup trophy.
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Dortmund fans are also unsure how to judge the campaign. They just about stumbled past Zenit St Petersburg in the last 16, and have long been left in the wake of Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich as injuries have decimated the team that reached last season’s Champions League final.
Starters Ilkay Gundogan, Neven Subotic, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Sven Bender and Marcel Schmelzer are all out of Wednesday’s game. Making matters worse star center-forward Robert Lewandowski, who scored four times in the first leg as Dortmund eliminated Madrid in last year’s semi-finals and is his side’s top scorer again in this campaign, is suspended.
Nevertheless, upbeat BVB coach Jurgen Klopp is confident of again upsetting the Spanish giants.
"This has been a very difficult season for us, right since the start," Klopp said. "We have faced extraordinary challenges and an unprecedented injury crisis. There is no doubt we are the underdog of the tie"…the ‘Cinderella’. But I always say we do not need to be the best team in the world, we just need to be able to beat the best team in the world in a direct contest. And Dortmund can beat the best."
Given his team recently drew 0-0 with a Schalke side that Madrid beat 9-2 on aggregate in the UCL last 16, that sounds like bravado from ‘Kloppo.’ But winger Marco Reus, scorer of a hat-trick in the weekend’s 3-2 win at Stuttgart on Saturday that kept Dortmund second in the Bundesliga standings, shares his boss’s optimism.
"Madrid are favorites," Reus said. "But we could spring a surprise, just like last year. Klopp always has a plan ready."
That plan must include dealing with a Madrid attack that has scored 29 goals in just 8 games so far, with Ronaldo on 13, just one away from the all-time Champions League record season tally. The Portuguese attacker has been playing recently through pain from a knee problem, but is still sure to start.
Luka Modric has recovered from a virus and will start in midfield, but Marcelo tore a hamstring muscle at training on Tuesday, so Fabio Coentrao will deputize at left-back. Bale, whose double against Rayo on Saturday means he has 16 goals already in his first season at Madrid, could play there, but is needed further forward.
Klopp has been talking up his side’s new players this season, but while Greek center-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Armenian playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan have settled relatively well, neither could really be called a ‘galactico.’ Gabon international Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (one goal in seven UCL appearances) will take Lewandowski’s place up front, while former Madrid flop Nuri Sahin will no doubt be eager to show the Bernabeu what he can do in central midfield.
That unsettled home crowd could influence proceedings, especially if Madrid do not start the game well. Ancelotti noted in his pre-match news conference Tuesday that he and his players had already put recent setbacks out of their minds, and called on Blancos fans to do that too.
"Last Saturday’s whistles have already been forgotten," the Italian coach said. "Everyone is excited and motivated, not just the players and the club, but all ‘madridismo’. I believe there will a very good atmosphere at the Bernabeu tomorrow, and the fans will help us."
With Dortmund so changed from last season, Madrid should really get a solid win to take control of the tie, and move on from what has been a nightmare few weeks. But even a narrow first-leg defeat for the visitors, who will have Lewandowski back for the return at its imposing Westfalenstadion next Tuesday, would keep alive Klopp’s hopes of a fairytale end to the season.