DORTMUND, Germany -- On Saturday afternoon, Borussia Dortmund will host 12th-placed SC Freiburg at the Westfalenstadion.
If it wasn't for Bayern Munich, who are 16 points ahead of second-placed Bayer Leverkusen, the Bundesliga would have a thrilling title race, given that four points separate teams ranked second through nine.
For the Black and Yellows, the pack scrambling for points in Bayern's dust is a curse and a blessing because no team has any consistency. Dortmund, for example, finished the first half of the season in third place even after failing to notch a win in eight games. But after dissatisfying draws against mediocre Wolfsburg and bland Hertha Berlin, the Ruhr Side now find themselves in sixth.
"Obviously, Champions League qualification is a must for a club like [BVB]," Dortmund manager Peter Stoger said in his news conference on Thursday. "But it's not always that easy in professional sport. We just didn't win two games we could have won."
The 51-year-old bemoaned a lack of finishing in the two games since the start of the year, as his side only managed one proper goal despite amounting 4.46 of the expected variety.
Inadvertently, it was an admission that Dortmund were missing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose future remains in some doubt. The striker has missed the last two games, one due to suspension after he missed a team meeting and the other because he "had his mind somewhere else," according to the club.
Without a decision about Aubameyang's future nor a suitable replacement in sight, BVB cannot afford to keep him out any longer as the risk of dropping more points and falling further behind is too high. Meanwhile, according to Stoger, omitting the Gabon international to protect him from injury that could obstruct a possible deal is not an option.
"That is nothing I would consider," said Dortmund's manager. "The risk to pick up an injury in training is high. If somebody is fit, you will use him. He trained well all week. Unless anything comes up, then Auba has qualified to be a part of the matchday squad."
However, the statement has to be taken with a pinch of salt as Stoger said something similar before the game against Hertha.
While the ordeal has mostly been a drag, there has also been a positive for Dortmund in the form of 18-year-old striker Alexander Isak, who used 68 minutes against Wolfsburg and 23 in Berlin to showcase his own talent.
For the first time since joining the club in January of 2017, he looked competitive at the Bundesliga level. Although some features of Isak's game are still raw, he managed to impress with his first touch and got into promising scoring positions from difficult passes.
While he only came close to scoring as the woodwork in each of the two matches, it was an important glimpse into the future that may influence how Dortmund decides to replace Aubameyang.
The same holds true for Jadon Sancho, who is a year younger than Isak. The English striker has played 90 minutes in back-to-back games and showed maturity beyond his years.
"I already knew about him beforehand as we wanted to bring him to Cologne, which wasn't possible," said Stoger. "He is a very good player, who is very quick and good in one-against-one situations. His career is only at the beginning but we will have a lot of fun with him."
With news that Marco Reus is not expected to make his season debut before the middle of February, Dortmund can feel upbeat about Sancho's development. It has been needed, given wingers Andre Schurrle and Andrey Yarmolenko not proving to be reliable assets.
The low scoring output has been the biggest frustration in 2018 so far as Dortmund's defence has kept games close. It looks as though Stoger's conservative approach has helped take pressure off the back line with Jeremy Toljan, who is filling in for the injured left-back Marcel Schmelzer, and centre-back Omer Toprak the biggest beneficiaries.
Toprak seems to have finally settled after joining from Bayer Leverkusen and struggling greatly throughout the first half of the season under Peter Bosz.
On the flip side, other centre-backs have fallen out of favour with the interim coach. Seeking regular playing time, Neven Subotic left the club for Saint Etienne on Thursday after spending nine years at the Westfalenstadion. And with the addition of FC Basel's Manuel Akanji, Marc Bartra could be next to head out the door.
"Marc is a player that has, without a doubt, a lot of quality," said Stoger. "In training he has good moments but then also makes critical errors. We have a lot of quality in our defence and we have plenty of options. I only field two centre-backs and usually only put one on the bench. Right now I put two centre-backs on the bench that also can play at fullback due to the injury of Erik Durm. Those are Dan-Axel Zagadou, who can play at left-back and Manuel Akanji, who can play on the right."
In a World Cup year, Bartra won't be satisfied with being fifth option at centre-back. And as Dortmund are also still looking to offload Schurrle, the final week before the transfer window shuts could see some notable changes.