Borussia Dortmund was surely in high spirits on Wednesday evening as they left the Donbass Arena after a 2-2 draw with Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of their Round of 16 match in the UEFA Champions League. And why not? They're heading back to the Westfalenstadion with an even score and two away goals. The prevailing wisdom is that they'll move on to the quarterfinals in three weeks time.
As BVB progress further in the continent's elite tournament, it will be important to keep an eye on the maturation of Die Borussen as they attempt to compete on the European level. Today marked the first time in fifteen years that BVB played in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Yes, they have won the Bundesliga two seasons in a row, but that does not guarantee success on the European stage. Look no further than the English champions Manchester City. They were one of the richest football sides ever put together, and they crashed and burned out of the group stage of this year's Champions League.
Coming into this season, I had two fears for Borussia Dortmund as they tried to seriously contend on three fronts for the first time in well over a decade. The first was that the squad doesn't have enough depth. The second was that the squad's naivety would shine through in Europe. In the "Group of Death", BVB didn't lose a single match. They clearly weren't affected by any of this then. Now, however, they sit fifteen points back of Bayern Munich in the league and can put all of their focus on the Champions League. Entering the group stage, the question is, "Will their naivety catch up with them?". For times against Shakhtar on Wednesday, it appeared that it finally did.
The first to display their naivety on the list was centerback Felipe Santana. The Brazilian was deputizing for Neven Subotic who was not in the starting eleven and recovering from an injury. While Subotic and Mats Hummels have formed an outstanding centerback partnership, it is well known throughout Germany that Santana can step in for either one without an issue. Santana failed a basic rule of defense: Do not concede free kicks on top of your penalty area. Especially, when the other side has a free kick taker with the quality of Darijo Srna. What was the result of Santana's silly foul on Luiz Adriano? Srna's free kick struck the back of the net.
The second offender was his centerback partner Hummels. The German international seems good for one massive brain fart in every big match he's in these days. This time it led directly to a goal. Shakhtar's Yaroslav Rakitskiy sent a long ball out of the back up top to Douglas Costa. Hummels horribly misjudged the ball in the air and ended up about five feet away from making contact with the ball. Costa beat Weidenfeller with an excellent finish. SB Nation's Graham MacAree put it best last summer after Hummels' embarrassing performance in Germany's semifinal exit against Italy at Euro 2012:
Hummels suffers from what readers familiar with the Premier League would probably consider 'David Luiz syndrome'. At his best, he's nothing short of extraordinary. There's no forward you'd expect to reliably beat him. He can take complete control of a game, driving the attack while shutting down the opposition. But it's difficult to trust him, because he can look imperious for 89 minutes of a match and then look like a man who doesn't know how to tie his own shoes in the other.
It's fine taking gambles when your team is inferior to the opposition. But when you're favourites, Hummels suddenly becomes a danger. The only time he'll get beaten is when he beats himself, but, as Euro 2012 has shown the world, he has a habit of doing exactly that.
The third and final offender that must be called out today is a big problem. After watching this particular Borussia Dortmund team over the last few seasons, it's become abundantly clear that they only know one way to play, and that is "balls to the wall". The club's play on the field has taken after their manager on the sideline. They continuously press high up the field, and it usually works to throw off their opponents and give them an advantage. During Wednesday's match, the faults of this system were on display for everyone to see.
BVB's front four of Robert Lewandowski, Mario Götze, Marco Reus, and Jakub Blaszczykowski are as dangerous an attack that you will find in world football. They press their opponents until the defense usually wilts under the pressure. However, as Shakhtar showed on Wednesday, when those four press high up the field, it leaves massive amounts of space at the back for counterattacks. Luiz Adriano, Douglas Costa, Fernandinho, Taison, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan constantly took advantage of the space in between the defense and the midfield, launching several devastating counters. Perhaps if Shakhtar wasn't playing their first competitive fixture in almost three months (The Ukrainian Premier League takes a winter break from December 2 through March 1.), they would have finished more of their opportunities.
All that said, BVB will be the favorites with the return leg three weeks from now in Dortmund. However, regardless of how many are portraying the Westfalenstadion as a "fortress" for BVB, it couldn't be further from the truth this season. In Bundesliga matches, they have only taken all three points in two of their last seven fixtures. Last season, they only failed to win three of their seventeen home matches. The smart money will be on Die Borussen to advance to the quarterfinals, but don't count out the UkraiBrazilians just yet.