Even at the time, before Jürgen Klopp or anyone on the payroll at Borussia Dortmund had but an inkling of the great story that was to follow, it had felt like a defining goal.
Three minutes from full-time, Gündogan, not for the first time this season, had found a pocket of space in the final third. His chip found Piszczek, whose looping header was aimed at Lewandowski in the six-yard box. With plenty still to do, and two defenders to contend with, he muscled his way onto the ball, took a touch to evade Alderweireld, and slammed the ball into the net.
Taking Europe by storm
Lewandowski’s opportunistic, classy finish was the moment they had neither fashioned nor had fallen their way during last season’s forgettable European campaign. It was a turning point, a moment which paved the way for the stunning set of results which were to come. Dortmund had beaten Ajax 1-0 at home to register three points from their Champions League opener, in the so-called ‘group of death’.
Klopp’s attitude to the result was indicative of the high expectations he sets of his side. “We continue to progress as a team and we will continue to develop”, he said post-match. “It is definitely something to build on.” If few were expecting his side to later emerge from two legs against both the Spanish and English Champions with two wins, two draws, Klopp certainly was.
A couple of weeks later, BVB were denied a richly-deserved three points at the home of Premier League Champions Manchester City. Against a side boasting some of the world’s most talented footballers, Dortmund’s combination of intelligence and swift movement of the ball when in possession with an energetic work-rate off the ball was simply too much for City to cope with. Reus was excellent. The same characteristic style then brought Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid to its knees, with Piszczek offering an extra dimension in a clever gameplan by the coach. Fellow full-back Marcel Schmelzer was the unlikely goalscoring hero. Reus stood out again.
Keen not to be outshone, Mario Götze provided a moment of magic in the return leg. His instant control and finish at pace at the Bernebeu, as BVB came within minutes of a famous victory, was a stunning piece of individual skill. By the time they crushed Frank de Boer’s growing Ajax side in the next match, qualification to the Last 16 was secured, before Dortmund eventually sealed first place in the group and knocked out Manchester City.
Looking back on the team’s disappointingly lacklustre and naive performance in Europe last season, the progress made this season by Dortmund has been stunning. The whole side has matured and reached a confidence level at which it can play its most effective game, even against teams with superior reputations. In the space of twelve months, evidently having learned from last season’s mistakes, Dortmund pose a threat to any side in this season’s competition.
This success has been down, in no small part, to their blockbuster summer signing Marco Reus, who has provided some of the side’s best moments of the season to date. The transitioning of Reus into the team has been seamless. (That is not to say that the German Champions haven’t missed the departed Shinji Kagawa—their best player last season at times, but Reus’ performances for his new club have been consistently outstanding). The 23 year-old was at the forefront of their 5-0 demolition of his former club Borussia Mönchengladbach, and has created more chances than any other player at the club so far this term, as well as scoring ten goals. Having said that, Reus’ new club finds itself trailing the team he had declined to join a year ago in the race for the title, to the extent that Jupp Heynckes’ FC Bayern might already have one hand on the German Championship plate.
While it’s true that Dortmund’s Hinrunde form didn’t match the exceptionally high standards set by the side’s mesmerising title charge last season, that their Bavarian rivals have established a twelve point gap over the first 17 games says far more about FC Bayern’s rampant opening half of the campaign than Dortmund’s own shortcomings, which have simply been magnified by Bayern’s stunning form. Now, even the most die-hard BVB fan would admit that a third consecutive salad bowl trophy is almost certainly beyond their reach this season. Klopp admitted this week that “the only chance is if Bayern trip themselves up, and I don’t believe they will do that.”
To a large extent, Dortmund have been punished by Jupp Heynckes’ side simply for not being perfect, for that has been the level required to match Ribéry, Kroos and co.’s league campaign to date. Klopp’s side have four points fewer than at this stage last season, when they also made a stuttering start before surging to the title. Their league form is not a cause for concern, so much as Bayern have been too good for the rest of the field, and look set to break the points record – set by Dortmund only last season.
However, if Dortmund are to maintain their position as a serious long-term rival to Bayern München, some issues clearly need addressing (or perhaps some creases ironing out), with the side a long way behind their rivals in the title race. In scrutinising their least impressive league matches, most disappointingly the dropped points at home, a few common themes do emerge and some weaknesses are exposed. Firstly, as Bayern so effectively strengthened their squad during the summer, giving them among the best squad depth in Europe, so Dortmund’s frailty in this department became more evident. The midfield influence of Sven Bender and the guile of the increasingly crucial Ilkay Gündogan was sorely missed as the Champions took one point from consecutive away games against Hamburger SV and Eintracht Frankfurt. Klopp’s side were missing their usual composure as they uncharacteristically surrendered a two-goal lead to bring only a point home from the Kommerzbank Arena.
BVB’s other slips-ups this season have been irregular, but not infrequent. Stuttgart and Düsseldorf frustrated the Schwarzgelben at the Signal Iduna Park. Strength-in-depth was the enemy again in the Revierderby, as a tactical shift to accommodate appropriate squad rotation backfired on Jürgen Klopp as Schalke 04, at their season’s peak at the time, took all three points home from Dortmund in October. Wolfsburg won there too, thanks in no small part to referee Wolfgang Stark’s infamous red-card decision for a perceived goal-line handball by Schmelzer.
When compared to Bayern’s, BVB’s squad depth does not encourage the same level of solidity and reassurance, and Klopp’s side has certainly looked vulnerable when key players have been missing, especially in defence or midfield. If Dortmund are to keep up with FCB domestically, more squad development is required, and the club has been quick to act upon that.
Indeed, events during the winter break have added intrigue and fascination to an already compelling power struggle between German football’s two current giants. The arrival of Pep Guardiola to the Bundesliga this summer will be the latest and most dramatic twist in this saga. But for this season, at least, Dortmund’s efforts to close the domestic gap on their rivals and add weight to their European ambitions have seen them re-sign Nuri Sahin. Partly due to fitness problems, the Turkish international’s opportunities at Real Madrid were limited, but the opportunity to re-establish himself in the Bundesliga is great news for BVB. “I am a better player now, even though I didn’t get much playing time,” asserts the 24 year-old following the move, speaking of his spells both in Madrid and at Liverpool this season. Although Ilkay Gündogan has progressed rapidly to assume Sahin’s creative role in the midfield since 2011, the talisman of BVB’s 2010/11 title success will inject some much-needed quality-in-depth in order to rival their Bavarian adversary. How Sahin’s arrival will affect Klopp’s first team plans will be intriguing, as he has a number of options available, experimenting with the Sahin/Gündogan ‘doppelsechs’ in midfield during the winter break.
In other transfer news, Ivan Perisic departed the club for VfL Wolfsburg (reportedly for a healthy €8 million). The move might make room for the exciting Leonardo Bittencourt to play a more senior role in the attack. BVB also bade farewell to reserve full-back Chris Löwe, who joined 1. FC Kaiserslautern on a permanent deal, while the club has been boosted by sealing long-term contracts for Schmelzer, Bender and Neven Subotic.
So looking ahead to 2013, it appears likely that even a performance to match the flawless 2011/12 Rückrunde will not be enough for Borussia Dortmund in terms of the title race. However, with a Champions League Last 16 tie with Shakhtar Donetsk on the immediate horizon, as well as the pertinent need to sustain Champions League football for both financial and development reasons, there is still plenty for the fans to be excited about. “We’re really fired up for the Rückrunde”, Klopp told Bild this week.
Ultimately, it is important to temper expectations and not heap undue pressure on this team. While there have been one or two setbacks, even if Dortmund finish the season without a third consecutive German Championship (which no side other than Bayern has achieved since Mönchengladbach in the 1970s), Klopp’s young side have still shown plenty of evidence of their continued rapid progress. Dortmund have proven in emphatic fashion that they belong among Europe’s elite, with Reus, Götze and the rest bringing their characteristic brand of energetic and explosive football onto the world stage, in a team which is possibly only beginning to reach its potential. In the four short months which comprised the 2012/13 Hinrunde, Jürgen Klopp’s talented BVB matured from boys into men.
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