Borussia Dortmund v Barcelona: heavyweights clash for first time in Champions League
A rare creature comes to the Champions League tonight – a fixture between established heavyweights with no back catalogue.
Borussia Dortmund, a previous winner, have never played Barcelona, five times triumphant, in the European Cup. It’s a gap that needed filling, a proper headliner between clubs equally committed to dynamic football.
Where Dortmund and Barcelona have met frequently is over business. In their direct transfer dealings, it would be easier to identify who’s ahead than to confidently forecast the outcome of the opening Group F match in a packed, noisy Westfalenstadion
There, on Wednesday, the safest prediction is that Paco Alcacer will threaten in the Barcelona penalty area. The Spaniard has scored in every fixture so far this season: seven in six across Bundesliga, German Super Cup and Cup matches; a goal in each of his internationals for Spain.
Alcacer was a Barcelona property at the beginning of this year, and halfway into a loan season at Dortmund.
His prolific goalscoring run in Germany had begun, so Dortmund in February exercised their option to buy.
Barcelona banked €23 million (Dh93.3m) for a striker they had largely limited to a role coming off the bench – he used his minutes well enough, but not as productively as in Dortmund’s jersey – but now wince when they glance back at the sale price. It keeps looking smaller.
Alcacer finished last season with 26 Bundesliga goals, at a fetching rate of one every 67 minutes.
The fee now looks almost scandalous, especially set next to the money involved in the major transaction that Barcelona and Dortmund sealed 12 months earlier.
That was the deal that took Ousmane Dembele to Catalonia, at over €100m, in the summer Barcelona lost Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain. Dembele was the dashing future-superstar they chose as partial compensation.
Dembele, still only 22, may very well live up to high expectations, but the report on his first two seasons at Barcelona would be mixed.
He has been decisive, a joy to watch on occasion, but those occasions have tended to be spread far apart.
There have been incidents of poor time-keeping and injuries have hampered his integration into a forward line with long established routines and relationships.
His latest lay-off, a hamstring problem, will keep him out of tonight’s game, for which Lionel Messi is also a doubt.
If Dembele’s transfer fee was elevated by the circumstances – PSG activating Neymar’s release clause had pumped €222m into Barcelona’s treasury – it also acknowledged his brilliance at opening up defences with speed, a range of tricks and purpose.
Dortmund bought Dembele as a teenager from Rennes in 2016 for around €15m and their mammoth profit, a year later, told a story not just about the game’s sudden hyperinflationary summer, but about the Frenchman’s potential.
Dembele at Dortmund immediately looked a player for the biggest stage and the sort of provider any strikeforce would value: He played 50 games, and in a run blissfully untainted by injury, registered 10 goals and a startling 22 assists.
Happily, for Dortmund, they had a footballer in mind to do some of Dembele’s work once he had gone.
Enter Jadon Sancho, who at 17 boldly left Manchester City on the promise of opportunity in Germany. He has reached 19 in a state of grace to liken to Dembele at the same age, a confident winger who has set up 29 Dortmund goals in his 65 appearances so far, and scored 17.
Last week, like Alcacer, Sancho struck two goals on international duty, his first for an England team he will be hard to dislodge from.
The Paco-and-Jadon partnership is developing nicely. Four of Alcacer’s goals so far this season came from Sancho passes.
On Saturday, they shared in a harmonious, delightful move for Dortmund’s second goal in the 4-0 demolition of Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday: a low Sancho cross, an intuitive dummy by Alcacer, letting the ball tunnel between his legs for Marco Reus to score.
Reus thanked Alcacer for distracting Leverkusen’s markers, forewarned by the Spaniard’s well-timed volley to put Dortmund 1-0 ahead.
Against Barcelona, Dortmund anticipate significant periods without the ball, but know they can counter-attack with menace, that their centre-forward needs a low ratio of chances to capitalise.
Will Alcacer celebrate if he maintains his season's 100 per cent scoring record, against his old club? “I’ll decide in the moment,” he told SER radio, admitting to some regrets from his two years at Barcelona. “Teammates and fans were great with me, but many people did not treat me well. You need be shown trust to give your best.” In Dortmund, they trust fully in Alcacer, the penalty-box assassin.
Updated: September 17, 2019 08:51 AM