October 22, 2012

The Champions League lives up to its illustrious name on Wednesday when Real Madrid, the defending Spanish champion, visits Borussia Dortmund, which is chasing its third straight German title. Control of Group D is at stake, as a win for Madrid would put it five points ahead of the pack. A victory for Dortmund would give it a slender lead over the group favorites.

Under coach Jürgen Klopp, Dortmund has proved that a German team can excel at something other than defense (a good thing considering the national side's mid-qualification crisis against Sweden.) With its attacking style of play, Dortmund is accustomed to dominating possession in the Bundesliga, a luxury it hasn't enjoyed in the Champions League. Among teams in its group Dortmund sits dead last in possession, averaging just 40 percent per game.

That hasn't bothered the club so far, thanks to a quick style of play. Dortmund used what time it had on the ball efficiently, creating 22 shots per game, double what group rivals Manchester City and Ajax have produced with significantly more possession.

The same quick movement will be key for the home side, especially from the back. So far this season, 70 percent of Dortmund's attacks have come down the wings, with outside backs Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer often charging forward. The right side has been especially effective: Piszczek and winger Jakub Blaszczykowski lead the team in assists, combining for seven in as many games and contributing four goals to boot.

That particular weapon may be dulled Wednesday, as Blaszczykowski seems certain to miss the match due to injury, while Schmelzer's involvement will be a last-minute decision after his absence from the weekend clash with Schalke.

Dortmund could benefit from imitating Seville, which handed Real Madrid its second league defeat of the season in September. In that game, an aggressive start (Seville made 34 tackles and committed 21 fouls) disoriented the champions long enough to concede a goal before they could dictate the pace of play. Dortmund has scored 10 of its 18 goals this season in the first half (see chart), and another early goal could give it something to hang on to against Madrid.

Where the German side will be particularly vulnerable is set pieces and long balls. Not including Mario Balotelli's penalty in its last Champions League bout, Dortmund had conceded nine goals in all competitions before the weekend, and five of those came from a set piece or long cross.

That's bad news because Dortmund's opponents are aptly suited to exploit precisely those situations. Crosses and long balls have made up 17 percent of Madrid's passes this season, a total of 88 such balls in eight games. When it comes to the battle in the air to finish those chances, the visitors have the advantage, winning 59 percent of their aerial duels compared with Dortmund's 53 percent success rate.

Of course, when it comes to the Spaniards, the elephant in the room is always Cristiano Ronaldo. It comes as no shock that the majority of Madrid's attacks come down the left, where the king of stepovers can get involved. But what is a bit more surprising is just how heavily the Real Madrid attack has depended on Ronaldo to be the sharp end of the stick this season.

Despite his supposed sadness, Ronaldo has scored 17 goals in all competitions, 41 percent of the club's goal haul over 15 games. His contribution in individual competitions is even more pronounced. In eight games in La Liga, he's claimed nine of its 16 goals: 56 percent. In just two Champions League games he's notched four of his team's seven goals: 57 percent. At the very least, the Meringues are flirting with the "one-man team" moniker.

So Dortmund fans can breath a sigh of relief. All their team need do is shut down the second-best player in the world and then ... they'll still have the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria to deal with.

That's not to say the visitors will be invulnerable, especially after Jose Mourinho was forced to watch the international break decimate his defense. Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Coentrão and Marcelo, who have 27 starts in all competitions between them, will all be absent. That leaves only one defender with any experience as an outside back this season.

The likely pairing of Sergio Ramos on the right and Michael Essien on the left has only one start in those positions between them, while Raphael Varane, who replaced Ramos in central defense against Celta Vigo on Saturday, had only two competitive starts in that position before the weekend: one against Manchester City and the other against relegation-threatened Deportivo La Coruña. That means Dortmund should have chances, especially if its dangerous right wing can cope with the absence of Blaszczykowski.

It's a big ask, but if it can continue to play quick and efficient and hold out against the stacked Madrid attack (simple enough, right?) Dortmund might just snag a positive result in front of the home fans. That, or Ronaldo will keep packing his stat sheet.

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