Borussia Dortmund hope goal-scoring defender Achraf Hakimi will again be their Champions League “weapon” to shoot down Barcelona on Wednesday and relieve pressure on under-fire coach Lucien Favre.
With two group games left, a last 16 place is still firmly in the hands of the Germans, who sit a point behind pool leaders Barcelona, thanks to Hakimi’s two goals in a stunning 3-2 home win over Inter Milan three weeks ago.
However, dreadful Bundesliga results in the meantime leave Favre needing a good performance in Barcelona to safeguard his job, putting the onus on Madrid-born Hakimi and his team-mates to turn things around at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.
Hakimi, who joined on loan from Real Madrid in July 2018, has been a regular starter under Favre at Dortmund. He has scored nine goals and set up 10 more in 47 matches as either a full-back on either flank or even up front as a winger.
He has scored four of Dortmund’s five Champions League goals, dazzling by scoring twice out of position on the left wing in October’s 2-0 win at Slavia Prague, where club captain Marco Reus described him as “a weapon” in Dortmund’s attacking armour.
“He’s incredibly fast. From that point of view, he’s always a weapon,” said Reus.
Having proved his versatility in Prague, Hakimi celebrated his 21st birthday with another two goals – this time from full-back – in the come-back win over Inter as Dortmund came from two goals down.
“Hakimi was everywhere,” said Favre.
“Hats off to him: he scored twice, but the others fed (passes into him) well too.”
Hakimi is relishing the freedom in the second of his two seasons on loan from Real, where he made barely a dozen appearances.
“Sometimes you have to have experiences like this to get where you want to be,” he told Spanish newspaper AS.
“That meant coming to Germany and I have to say it’s been great.
“I’m a better player and am getting regular football.
“That confidence is what allows you to express yourself and play with freedom. I’m now a different Achraf.”
The Morocco international is at his best using his pace and strength to power through defenders.
Much like the team around him, Hakimi has creases to smooth in his defensive game. He is too often caught out of position when opponents counter attack.
Since the high of the home win over Inter, the wheels have threatened to come off Dortmund’s season.
Impact off bench
A 4-0 thrashing at Bayern Munich a fortnight ago was followed by a woeful display last Friday at home to Bundesliga bottom side Paderborn, as Dortmund had to come from three goals down to salvage a 3-3 draw.
“We go to Barcelona with Lucien Favre and expect a much better performance,” sports director Michael Zorc said tersely on Saturday.
The Dortmund squad were jeered and whistled, amid cries of “shame on you!” at Sunday’s annual general meeting.
With Dortmund trailing 3-0 at home, Hakimi was one of Favre’s three half-time changes against Paderborn.
He made an immediate impact by setting up England winger Jadon Sancho, who pulled one back before further goals by Axel Witsel, then Reus just before the final whistle, salvaged a point.
An ashen-face Reus apologised to Dortmund fans for a “shit” performance and at Sunday’s AGM, club CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke quoted Martin Luther to urge the glum-faced squad to buck up their ideas.
“As even Luther said, ‘no happy fart can come out of a despondent backside’ – that should be the motto for the upcoming games,” said Watzke.
Now it’s up to Hakimi and his team-mates to bring a breath of fresh air in Barcelona to Dortmund’s stale season.