Bayer Leverkusen, Stuttgart and Borussia Dortmund will experience their last group stage games in Europa League competition mid-week. For Leverkusen and Stuttgart, their places are already assured into the knockout rounds of the competition. For the high-flying Dortmund club that has dominated Bundesliga play, a win against FC Sevilla is needed to advance into the knockout phase. All three games will be televised in the U.S. on the DirecTV UEFA channels. Wednesday’s Dortmund-Sevilla match will kick off on Wednesday at 3:00pm ET on the UEFA channels and also on GolTV. Thursday’s Leverkusen matchup with Atletico Madrid will also be carried by GolTV starting at 1:00pm ET. Stuttgart’s match with Odense BK is only available on the DirecTV UEFA channels beginning at 3:00pm ET Thursday.
Do or Die for Dortmund
For all the success Jurgen Klopp and his team have experienced in the Bundesliga this season, they were knocked out of the DFB Pokal Cup and have to beat Sevilla Wednesday to continue on in Europa competition. The Yellow and Blacks are in this precarious position because they have failed to maximize points at Signal Iduna Park in Europa contests, losing to Sevilla 1-0 and drawing against PSG 1-1 before finally getting the full three points at home against Karpaty Lviv with a 3-0 win.
Shinji Kagawa and Lucas Barrios lead Dortmund in Bundesliga goals with eight each, while Polish international Robert Lewandowski has added five goals, mostly in the role of second half substitute. Dortmund are an amazing 11 points above second place Leverkusen with one more round before winter break, and have accomplished their remarkable record of 14 wins, one loss and one draw with a stunning positive goal differential of 30. D0rtmund’s goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller leads the Bundesliga in clean sheets, although he is subject of transfer rumors since his contract expires at the end of the season, with EPL club Aston Villa supposedly a prime contender for his services. Dortmund recently signed a contract extension with talented young defender Sven Bender through the 2018 season.
With PSG already booked into the final 32 of Europa League competition, Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla will be fighting to be the other Group J representative. Sevilla only need a draw to go through, so the pressure is on Dortmund to win in Spain Wednesday. While Dortmund are dominating the Bundesliga, Sevilla are eleventh in the La Liga table with 20 points after 15 games, with a -5 goal differential. Sevilla have lost their last five games, including La Liga matches with Villareal, Almeria, Getafe and Mallorca, and their Europa League matchup with PSG. Frederic Kanoute has scored five La Liga goals for Sevilla in ten matches, while Alvaro Negredo has scored five in nine contests, while Luis Fabiano has chipped in four. Sevilla have not been particularily strong at their Ramon Sanchez Pizquain home ground in Andalusia this year, having only three games and drawn two in eight home matches.
Bayer Leverkusen in Driver’s Seat
The Bundesliga’s second place club, Bayer Leverkusen, have clinched the top spot in Group B. For their Wednesday opponent at the BayArena, Atletico Madrid, the Europa League title holders, elimination is a very real possibility. The Spanish club must better the result that fellow Group B club Aris Thessalonika achieves against Rosenborg with Aris playing at their Salonika fortress where they are unbeaten in European competition in decades.
Jupp Heynckes’ club have displayed the best defensive results in Europa League play this season, allowing only one goal in five matches. What team will Heynckes field for this match? It is already known that Leverkusen’s star goalkeeper, German international Rene Adler, will begin his winter break early, skipping the match with Atletico and this weekend’s match with SC Freiburg. It is hoped that the additional rest will help Adler with his problematic patella tendon. Twenty year-old backup Fabian Giefer will replace Adler in the two matches.
Even though Leverkusen have nothing tangible to gain with a win over Atletico, I feel it’s in their best interest to field a strong squad Thursday. Beating last year’s Europa League champions would be another milestone for Leverkusen and build even more confidence going into the winter break, especially if Leverkusen can take SC Freiburg on MatchDay 17. Although Thursday’s contest is meaningless for Leverkusen as far as their Europa League future, it is backs-to-the-wall time for Atletico, and knocking the holders out of the Europa competition in a desperate situation would be fantastic for the BayArena crowd. Leverkusen will come back from the winter break opening up against the dynamic Borussia Dortmund squad on January 14, and hopefully the injured Stefan Kiessling and Michael Ballack will be ready to play for Die Werkself.
Stuttgart Welcome a New Coach (again)
Stuttgart close out the group stage against Danish club Odense BK. With Stuttgart already through to the next stage with 12 points in Group H and Odense already eliminated, this game would seem nothing but a glorified training session. But Stuttgart management, as is their wont, changed coaches over the weekend, handing the reins to 44 year-old Bruno Labbadia after Jens Keller was dismissed sixty days into his Stuttgart head coaching tenure. Labbadia will make his Stuttgart coaching debut against Odense.
Labbadia is no stranger to coaching in German football. Since 2003 he has been the head man at SV Darmstadt 98, Greuther Furth, Leverkusen and Hamburg. Labbadia, a profilic striker who is the only player to score more than 100 goals in both the Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga, was dismissed from Hamburg in April, 2010 following the club’s 7th place finish. He is tasked with turning around an underperforming Stuttgart club that is in the relegation zone only two points ahead of bottom-dwelling Boruissa Monchengladbach. Despite their admirable results in Europa League competition, Stuttgart have been woeful in the Bundesliga, winning only three of sixteen matches thus far.
One would think that Thursday’s match with Odense will be an almost guaranteed victory for Die Schwaben. Considering that they are playing at Mercedes-Benz Arena against a Odense team that has already started it’s winter break, along with the bump a coaching change often brings, I’d be quite surprised if Stuttgart doesn’t win Thursday. But despite Stuttgart’s trend of playing very well after the winter break in recent seasons, Labbadia will have his work cut out for him in the second half to even move Stuttgart into the top half of the table. Stuttgart won the Bundesliga in the 2006-2007 season, but those memories must seem remote to the fans watching this season’s disaster unfold.
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