Last year, about this time, Borussia Dortmund couldn’t make it out of a Champions League group that included Arsenal, Marseille and Olympiakos, while two years ago Borussia Dortmund were stymied in their attempt to advance from their Europa League group. But this year, Dortmund will savor European competition into the New Year as they advanced to the final Round of 16 with a 4-1 victory over Ajax in Amsterdam.
Fashioning an undefeated Group D mark in five matches against the 2011/2012 domestic champions of the Netherlands, England and Spain has carried Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund side over the final hurdle, or perhaps the remaining thorn in their sides — failure to advance in Europe. Despite two domestic titles and the German Cup, BvB needed to prove themselves in Europe, and this year they finally have. They will join fellow Bundesliga clubs Bayern München and Schalke in the next round of Champions League play as all three have now clinched their advance with one game remaining in the group stage.
Tactics and Formations
Frank de Boer’s Ajax side had everything to gain by a result Wednesday night. With five points earned so far in group play, Ajax stood only three points behind Klopp’s side and two behind Real Madrid. Although only fourth in the Eredivisie table after 13 matches, Ajax had lost just once in league play, their record dimmed by six domestic draws. But Ajax had won its last two league games and had beaten and drawn Manchester City in its last two CL starts, giving the Amsterdam side confidence for a chance of advancement. Ajax have scored 31 goals in their 13 league matches, second only to PSV Eindhoven’s 48 goals in the Eredivisie.
De Boer returned Kenneth Vermeer between the posts for Wednesday’s match after Jasper Cillessen was the starting keeper in Saturday’s 2-0 win over VVV Venlo. De Boer made several other changes in the starting XI from Saturday’s match, replacing Joel Veitman with Toby Alderweireld in the back, bringing in Eyong Enoh in the midfield for Lasse Schöne and starting Jody Lukoki in place of Victor Fischer.
For Dortmund, an undefeated record in Champions League play hasn’t been equaled in league play, as Dortmund trail leaders Bayern Munich by nine points after 12 matchdays. Dortmund’s 6-4-2 Bundesliga record includes defeats to Hamburg and Schalke, and although Klopp’s men have fashioned a +15 goal differential and are second in scoring, they have been unable to match the dominance of the Bavarians so far this year. Dortmund recorded wins the last two times out against Bundesliga stragglers Augsburg and Greuther Fürth, but have had trouble taking all three points from some of the Bundesliga’s upper echelon clubs this fall.
Klopp went with his regular back five for Wednesday’s match, along with holding midfielders Sven Bender and Illkay Gundogan. The only changes in his lineup from Saturday’s starting XI were the insertion of Kevin Großkreutz and Marco Reus for Ivan Perisic and Jakub Blaszczykowski.
The atmosphere was certainly lively at Ajax’ Amsterdam Arena home prior to game time, with the crowd waving Ajax flags as famed Dutch violinist André Rieu fiddled for the fans jammed inside the stadium. After taking four of six Champion League points from EPL champions Manchester City, the fans of the young Ajax squad had reason for optimism and were fervent in providing support for their team that needed a result to have any chance of advancing.
An early ball to Ajax right winger Jody Lukoki, sprinting down the middle of the field, looked to cause threat for Dortmund but Lukoki’s chesting down of the ball put it beyond reach of danger. Dortmund drew first blood, making something out of seemingly nothing, in the eighth minute of play. A ball intercepted by right back Łukasz Piszczek was delivered to Marco Reus, who one-timed the ball to fellow young star Mario Götze, who dribbled down the right side. As he reached the corner of the penalty area, he let loose with a perfectly weighted diagonal ball that Reus, charging upfield, met and delivered into the net just outside the left leg of Ajax keeper Vermeer. A 1-0 lead to the visitors didn’t quiet the crowd much, and Ajax continued to look for Lukoki down the right side. Unfortunately for them, left back Marcel Schmelzer and especially center back Mats Hummels were able to nullify the speedy 20 year-old. Ajax’ best chance to equalize came from a corner kick, with one shot being blocked and a second flying wide of Dortmund’s far post.
On another Ajax effort to work the right side, the energetic Götze took the Dortmund clearance and dribbled box to box, outrunning one Ajax player and deking another before running out of steam, losing the ball as he attempted to drag it forward for a possible pass to an awaiting Robert Lewandowski. Götze’s efforts found reward minutes later, though. A quick free kick from Mats Hummels down the leftfound an open Götze, who cut right past Ajax defender Ricardo Van Rinjh and created a bit of space before unleashing a low shot inside the near post that eluded Vermeer. Dortmund were up 2-0 in the 36th minute, and there was no turning back. Five minutes later, Götze again played a part in a Dortmund score as his volleyed shot was knocked aside by a diving Vermeer, with the resulting rebound stuffed away neatly by Lewandowski for a 3-0 Dortmund advantage. Klopp’s side took the three goal advantage into the halftime lockerroom despite yielding 66% possession and 180 more completed passes to the Amsterdam side.
Despite trailing by three goals and seeing their Champions League dreams drifting away, Ajax started the second half with energy. Christian Eriksen drew a save from BvB keeper Roman Weidenfeller six minutes after intermission, shooting from a through ball provided by Derk Boerrigter, but it was Dortmund’s Lewandowski who would score the next goal, with Götze again involved. A diagonal aerial cross from just outside the box in the 67th minute by the 20 year-old attacking midfielder was controlled on the outstretched right foot of Lewandowski, whose shot from a bad angle escaped Vermeer and kissed off the far post into the Ajax net. An overjoyed crowd of travelling Dortmund supporters could relax as the game wound down, with Klopp bringing in Blaszczykowski, Perisic and Julian Schieber as the minutes ticked away. Ajax notched a consolation goal on a deflected shot by sub Danny Hoesen in the 86th minute, but by then it was much too little much too late.
Wednesday’s 4-1 win over Ajax was a very important result in Borussia Dortmund’s recent history, and will undoubtedly raise deserved awareness of the club’s quality throughout the world with their advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League tournament. Dortmund were able to achieve their result by virtue of patience, allowing Ajax’ superior possession (65%) while waiting for opportunities, and seizing each completely. Often chided as being wasteful finishers, Dortmund Wednesday had only six attempts on goal, but converted four of them.
And although in many ways it was Mario Götze’s day to shine, scoring one goal and being directly involved in the other three Dortmund tallies, it was Dortmund’s defending that was also unparalleled in effectiveness. The backline of Piszczek, Subotic, Hummels and Schmelzer were pristine in their use of their pace and heading away practically everything airborne, and with the play of defensive midfielders İlkay Gündoğan and Sven Bender, built up a defensive maze through which Ajax attackers could find no entrance.
Now Dortmund will have to prove itself again, in the CL knockout stages, but considering their run of play in the Group D of champions, nothing seems implausible for Die Schwarzgelben from the Ruhr Valley. With perennial CL powers Barcelona and Manchester United suffering upset losses in group play and Dortmund escaping the Group of Death in style, anything seems possible for Kloppo and his team. The knockout stages of CL play will give fans a real idea of how good a club Dortmund really have become.