This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
Tough times lie ahead for Borussia Dortmund and make no mistake about it, but if that was the last time we see this brilliant side play to its maximum potential then we should ensure that the memory of this match lasts forever. Not since Monaco and Porto contested the Champions League final in 2003/04 has a side of such limited means gone so far – and Jürgen Klopp’s spectacular side wipes the floor with both of those teams.
By the time Robert Lewandowski crashed home the penalty kick that made it 4-1 to die Schwarzgelben most viewers had stopped paying attention to Real Madrid. There can be no higher compliment to Dortmund. Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil, Xabi Alonso and company were pressed into submission; made to look totally average by a team whose wage bill ranks somewhere between Aston Villa’s and Tottenham’s.
Lewandowski will once again take all the headlines. If the away leg in Málaga was the perfect advert for the strength of his game outside the box, then this was its accompaniment: a ruthless exhibition of clinical finishing and predatory movement that left Pepe and Raphaël Varane looking like schoolboys. The way he manoeuvred his feet in co-ordination with the ball to score his third goal was nothing short of sublime.
Marco Reus was equally effective. As in October, Real Madrid suffered due to his relentless pressing of their weaker and largely unprotected full-back. While the Group Stage fixture saw Reus targeting unprotected left-back Michael Essien, this game saw him mercilessly pressurising Sergio Ramos on the opposite side of the pitch. With Özil doing little to help from his position out wide, Ramos was a lamb to the slaughter.
Perhaps the game’s most influential player was İlkay Gündoğan, a footballer who has come on leaps and bounds in the last two years to the point where he now faces up to Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira and leaves the field with statistics far better than theirs. No-one completed more passes than Gündoğan and only Madrid’s full-backs made more tackles. He even outpassed Xabi Alonso over long distances: testament not only to his skill but to Dortmund’s superior defensive co-ordination.
It has all been said before but it is impossible not to wax lyrical about Klopp’s achievements in Dortmund. In an era that sees success largely dictated by titanic television deals, commercial revenue streams and sugar daddies, this is a triumph built from the real location of football’s heart: the training ground.
The core of the squad has long been in place and that is a great reason for its strength. The players have been working together for so long that they know each other as well as Xavi knows Andrés Iniesta. This is the fifth season in which Mats Hummels and Neven Subotić have been the centre-back pairing in front of Roman Weidenfeller. Sebastian Kehl and Jakub Błaszczykowski have been around even longer than that.
Nuri Şahin, Sven Bender, Marcel Schmelzer and Mario Götze have come through the academy under Klopp, obedient pupils and willing learners under his tutelage. Better known coaches would have failed with talents like them but Klopp has focused on making single one of them the best player they can possibly be.
In the scouting department, Dortmund have played the long game and found such incredible short term success that it could be to their detriment. Nonetheless, Shinji Kagawa made them a 4,857% profit in two years. Three years ago Lewandowski was playing for Lech Poznań and being linked with Blackburn Rovers. Łukasz Piszczek was first choice right-back for Hertha BSC and finishing bottom of the Bundesliga. Gündoğan was finding his feet in the game with Nürnberg.
Every one of these players would now command an eight-figure transfer fee and Dortmund, while hardly paupers, are not in a position to turn down too many of those. More importantly, with Lewandowski, Hummels and Götze all hightailing it out of the Westfalenstadion this summer, it seems inevitable that more painful exits will follow.
This is not just a tragedy for Dortmund and their fans but for European football as a whole. One of the most exhilarating sides of the modern era will never reach its peak together. While Dortmund’s ten-strong scouting team has worked miracles to find replacements for the likes of Lucas Barrios and Kagawa, replacing the core of the team that has taken so long to build in a single summer will probably prove impossible.
So, what next for the stars of the show? One imagines Lewandowski will end up at Chelsea. It would be a natural fit given their style and the wages his agent is looking to secure. Hummels is nailed on to be playing his football in Barcelona from July. And Götze, of course, will play for Bayern under Guardiola.
It is not outlandish to suggest that others will follow them out of the door. Subotić has long been linked with the Premier League and it would not be a surprise if he cashed in his chips now, having achieved all he can in Germany. The same goes for Piszczek and Bender. While Reus only returned to Dortmund a year ago, seeing him in this sort of form makes one wonder why Barcelona are so intent on pursuing Neymar.
The Brazilian wonderkid’s capacity for defensive work is underestimated by many European viewers, who wrongly assume that he is another Robinho-style showpony, but he is still not quite as effective or as tactically astute as Reus, whose intuitive understanding of positioning and pressing makes him the perfect wide-forward for Barcelona’s struggling system. If I had €40m burning a hole in my pocket, I know which of the two I would take to Camp Nou.
Regardless of what happens to Dortmund, their manager and their players after this, the most visible of their many triumphs, they deserve to go down in European folklore as one of the great sides. Not just for what they have achieved this season and last night, but for the modest and admirable manner in which they have reached this point. On behalf of football hipsters across the continent, I say one last ‘bravo’.