Borussia Dortmund need win vs. Tottenham to save their season
Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted, as the saying goes. But for Borussia Dortmund, who already look set to miss out on the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2011-12, there's still a more tangible achievement at stake: Peter Bosz's team take on Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday night in an effort to save their season.
Ordinarily, scraping to third place in the group ahead of APOEL of Nicosia and parachuting in to the Europa League would be seen as a minor disgrace rather than a target in Westphalia. But these are not ordinary times.
Dortmund are without a win since late September in the Bundesliga: losing three times in succession. They've drawn twice with minnows APOEL. There's persistent trouble with their main goal scorer Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, who was left out of the squad for the game against Stuttgart for disciplinary reasons; increasing criticism of Bosz's tactics; a keeper, in Roman Burki, who produces howlers on a regular basis; and a high-profile back-office departure as chief scout Sven Mislintat left to join Arsenal.
Worst of all, neighbours Schalke 04 have leapfrogged them in the table, enjoying themselves in second place while BVB are out of the running for next season's Champions League places in fifth.
"We want to overtake Dortmund for good," Schalke boss Clemens Tonnies told Monday's kicker magazine. What would have been a laughable statement a few months ago all of a sudden sounds like credible threat.
Dortmund desperately need a win against Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs to stem the tide of negativity washing over them this autumn.
Aside from a potential boost for the team's fragile confidence, there are pragmatic concerns. A run in the Europa League might offer the only realistic chance to win a trophy this year: the league is almost lost and their nemesis Bayern Munich will host them in the next round of the DFB Pokal in December.
Silverware, as Dortmund know only too well, makes it much easier to keep players from pursuing lucrative offers elsewhere. BVB chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke recently compared his club's situation with a Sisyphean task, but rolling stones up a hill is much more rewarding if you get at least a brief moment in the sun at the summit from time to time.
For budding star players Christian Pulisic or Julian Weigl, who could easily find well-paid opportunities elsewhere, it's vital to feel that Dortmund can foster their development. Right now, however, almost every squad member is struggling to play to the best of their abilities, with the team seemingly falling apart each time the opposition target their over-exposed defence with quick, long balls. To lose games is bad enough, but to lose games in such predictable fashion is demoralising. There comes a point when the most talented players become convinced that they're wasting their time with a team that cannot put in a coherent performance.
We're not quite there yet. But there's no doubt that Bosz, 54 on Tuesday, is running out of time to get his house in order. Dortmund, who only gatecrashed the European elite by way of superlative scouting and transformative coaches like Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, simply cannot afford to see their prized assets lose faith. The bosses will act -- and surely bring out the axe -- before Pulisic & Co. get too disheartened.
Not all problems are of Bosz's own making. Perhaps he didn't realise just how slow the defensive pairing of Sokratis and Omer Toprak were before taking the job at the Signal Iduna Park, and Burki's calamitous form has only added to the instability.
Aubameyang's ill-discipline is a problem he inherited from his predecessor -- maybe the logical consequence of club and player missing the right moment to part ways this summer. Dortmund have been willing to sell the Gabon international in the last two summer transfer windows, for the right price, but no suitable offers came in.
BVB and PEA are thus stuck with each other, reluctant cohabiters in a loveless marriage that only exists due to material concerns and a mutual dependency. Dortmund need Aubameyang's goals to get to where they want to be; Aubameyang needs to score goals at Dortmund to get out.
Bosz, in the meantime, needs to stop Dortmund conceding to stay in his job. Like all coaches who play an instantly recognisable system, he has come under fire for a perceived stubbornness. Attempts to modify Dortmund's style have so far resulted in a muddled neither-here-nor-there confusion, and there's a real danger his inexperience at this level will adversely impact his ability to tread the line between staying true to his principles and recognising a need to change (or to do things a little differently, at least).
Dortmund are desperate to drown out the disquiet with some cheers from the Yellow Wall, but, most of all, they're anxious to hold their nerve at this pivotal time of the campaign. The Ruhr derby vs. Schalke is up next at the weekend, and another blow to their fragile confidence beforehand against Spurs may set the wheels of change in motion.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein