A Friday night fright has left Borussia Dortmund's Lucien Favre with two games to save his job. Unfortunately for him, the first is a trip to face Barcelona and Lionel Messi. How did it come to this for the Swiss coach?
As endorsements go, it was hardly glowing.
"Dear Lucien, you still have our confidence," started Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke, reassuringly, at the club's AGM on Sunday. "But in the end, football is always about results so we need to straighten ourselves for the games in Barcelona and Berlin," he concluded, much more pointedly.
Two days earlier captain Marco Reus had again been the man forced to front up with an apology after a shambolic Dortmund display.
"We must never perform like that again. That was shameful," he said after BVB went 3-0 down at home to bottom club Paderborn before fighting back to draw 3-3.
After Watzke's words, Favre knows Reus' to be true. He, more than anyone else, cannot afford even a mediocre performance in either of the next two fixtures. The first comes in Barcelona on Wednesday night. A rampaging second half saved Dortmund from another home deficit in the 3-2 win over Inter Milan earlier this month and means a point or more at the Camp Nou will leave Champions League qualification in their own hands come the final matchday, at home to Slavia Prague.
That's easier said than done. The Matchday-4 stalemate with Slavia was the only home match the La Liga leaders have failed to win at home this season. Though the trip to the German capital to face freefalling Hertha Berlin on Saturday looks more straightforward, so did the visit of Paderborn. Aside from the patchy form, how did Favre get himself into such a precarious position?
This time last year, Favre was radiating in the glow of a healthy Bundesliga lead, an unbeaten record and a recent win over Bayern Munich. But a nine-point lead was transformed into a two point deficit as Niko Kovac led Bayern to a seventh successive title. As well as a damaging 5-0 loss to the Bavarians, Dortmund's challenge unravelled on derby day when a 4-2 loss to Schalke saw Favre verbally concede the title in late April. This despite his side being just a point behind Bayern, who subsequently drew their game in hand with relegated Nuremberg. Talk of surrender at such a stage would be unthinkable from the champions and posed some serious questions about the Swiss coach's mentality.
The striker shortage
Watzke admitted that not all of Dortmund's problems can be laid at the feet of Favre when he lamented their failure to sign a second striker to compete with the injury-prone Paco Alcacer. Although goal scoring hasn't always been the biggest issue, the Spaniard's absences often leave Dortmund without a focal point in attack. Whether that can be addressed in January is up for debate but Favre requires a more immediate solution, with Alcacer set to miss Wednesday's game. Mario Götze, Jacob Bruun Larsen and Thorgan Hazard have all failed to make much of an impact at the top end, with the three combined having scored half the amount of fullback Achraf Hakimi this term. There seems no simple answer but Favre must find something fast.
Though the return of Mats Hummels has largely been a success, Dortmund's Achilles' heel remains. Only one team in the top half (Hoffenheim) have conceded more in the Bundesliga than the Yellow and Blacks and even then only by a single goal. Manuel Akanji remains error prone, Julian Weigl continues to prove he's not really a center back, Hakimi is much more comfortable going forward than defending and Nico Schulz has failed to find his best form since his summer move. It's hard to think of a defender who has improved during Favre's tenure.
Change brings early success at Bayern
Bayern's 4-0 win over Dortmund earlier this month was Hansi Flick's first league game in temporary charge but the German's impact was already clear on a revitalized side. With coaches of the caliber of Mauricio Pochettino, Massimiliano Allegri and even Niko Kovac on the market, as well as plenty of internal options, a mid-season coaching change may not quite be the upheaval it usually is.
The Sancho situation
Unlike his immediate predecessors in the job, Favre has so far been able to keep his most valuable playing assets, with the possible exception of Christian Pulisic. But that state of affairs may not last much longer. The Athletic recently reported that English starlet Jadon Sancho feels "humiliated, scapegoated and unprotected" by the club after he was hauled off early against Bayern. The 19-year-old is already one of BVB's most consistently productive players and was always likely to move on to even grander things. But it increasingly feels like this may come sooner than Dortmund would like.