Dortmund take nothing for granted in the final chapter of the Bundesliga season
Posted on March 26th, 2012
Shinji Kagawa dashed over to the dugout, high-fived his coach Jürgen Klopp and a couple of teammates before searching out Felipe Santana in particular. It was their special day after all.
Before Saturday’s game against Werder Bremen, the Borussia Dortmund players had gathered around the pair and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in the dressing room. After eight minutes, Kagawa had opened the scoring. It was the icing on the cake and he wanted to blow the candles out with Santana.
“I got myself a present today,” he said. “It’s his birthday as well and I’m happy that I was able to dedicate my goal to him.”
The afternoon had started on a somber note. A minute’s silence was held in memory of ‘Timo’ Konietzka, who died in Switzerland last week. He had been suffering from cancer and, according to a death notice he had published in the newspaper Blick, took his own life with the help of the Swiss assisted suicide group Exit.
“Konietzka, forever a German champion,” read a banner in the stands. A prolific striker for Dortmund in the late `50s and early `60s, he is most remembered, quite coincidentally, for finding the net against Werder on August 24, 1963. It was an historic goal because it was also the first to ever be scored in the newly formed Bundesliga.
Mournful faces in the crowd quickly found something to smile about again once Kagawa had given his side the lead. It was a wonderful goal on the counter attack, so typical of what everyone has come to expect from Dortmund under Klopp.
Goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller plucked a Werder corner out of the air and promptly threw it to Robert Lewandowski. Another fast break was on. The ball was shifted out wide on the left to Kevin Großkreutz. He spotted Ilkay Gündogan at the far post. A cross was delivered, which was then met with a selfless volley cushioned across goal for Kagawa to nod in at point-blank range.
The row of Japanese tourists seen in the stands each wearing Dortmund replica shirts which matched the yellow and black colours of the neck straps holding their cameras, could leave satisfied. They had got what they came to see.
Kagawa later had a shot pushed onto the post while captain Sebastian Kehl’s towering header struck the underside of the bar. It bounced on the line before being punched to safety.
At their best, there’s a waspish quality about Dortmund. They swarm forward, buzzing from all sides before descending on their opponents as though they are an ice cream melting on the pavement. No wonder Werder coach Thomas Schaaf was pictured on the sidelines swatting at the air in vain. As it happened, one sting was enough for Dortmund to kill off the visitors.
They won 1-0. It should have been more. But still, the league leaders maintained their five-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga. While Bayern grabbed the headlines after their astonishing feat of scoring 20 goals in the space of a week, Dortmund, like a poker player who knows he holds all the cards, raised the stakes accordingly by extending their run to 20 matches unbeaten, a new club record.
Dortmund will, in all likelihood, retain the title for the first time since 1996 this season, not that anyone at the club has been prepared to say so throughout the campaign. There’s a reluctance to jinx it, a residual humility that comes from the knowledge that, even though they’re the holders and will be stronger for it in the run-in, it was only seven years ago last week that an emergency meeting was called to save the club from bankruptcy.
“Of course we want to stay up there and win as many games as possible,” their CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke told Bild. “But I would be happy with second place.” Just who, though, is he trying to kid? What’s the harm in revealing an aspiration to win it?
Tired of the charade, captain Kehl broke cover and went rogue on ‘Aki’ Watzke. He said what everyone is thinking. “We are dominant table-toppers and there are eight games to go. I’d sound ridiculous if I said that we had no ambitions to win the title.”
Dortmund’s destiny lies in their own hands. The season is likely to come down to 10 days in mid-April, for it’s then that they host free-scoring Bayern in an eagerly anticipated top of the table clash. Fans were already pitching their tents to be first in the line to buy tickets last Sunday afternoon. By Monday morning it was sold out. After that there’s a short drive to Schalke for the Revierderby, where Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s remarkable record of 38 goals in 37 games in all competitions this season makes the former Ajax, Real Madrid and AC Milan striker the most prolific marksman on Europe’s shores behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Then there’s the visit of this campaign’s revelation, Lucien Favre’s Borussia Mönchengladbach to prepare for at the Westfalenstadion.
All in all, it promises to be a captivating final chapter to the season in the Bundesliga. If Dortmund were to throw away their advantage, a plot twist usually reserved for horror stories about Bayer Leverkusen published in 2000 and 2002, then it would come as a shock.
Little has got in their way. They have coped quite comfortably since mid-December without the injured Mario Götze and his return for the last five or six games of the season might provide them with a boost.
Rumblings off the pitch about players’ contracts have made a few headlines. Kagawa’s existing deal expires in 2013 and while that should perhaps be the focus of Dortmund’s attention, it’s the entourage of Lewandowski, the team’s top scorer, which has been causing a stir, as they have been agitating to get their client a significantly better salary than the one he is currently on until 2014.
Still, these are only ripples on Lake Placid. Last night, Dortmund secured their passage to the final of the DFB Cup, a trophy they haven’t lifted since 1989.
They were taken to extra-time by second division leaders Greuther Fürth. As had happened against Werder at the weekend, they created a lot but couldn’t put them away, a criticism that has frequently been made of Dortmund in recent weeks. Kagawa headed over from three yards and also saw a shot palmed around the post. Lewandowski wasted another opening while Großkreutz forced a terrific save from Fürth `keeper Max Grün, who ended up in a heap in his own net after pushing away another header.
With the game still goalless, penalties looked to be on the cards. Klopp had claimed before the tie that if it came to a shootout, he’d leave his place on the bench and watch from the stands out of superstition. He had been sent there earlier in the competition during a match against Fortuna Düsseldorf, and thought that it might be lucky, as on that occasion they had gone through after triumphing 5-4 from the spot.
Before Klopp could take his position, however, Fürth coach Mike Büskens made a decision that would have an influential bearing on the outcome of the game. He replaced Grün with Jasmin Fejzic, a reserve `keeper with a reputation for saving penalties.
It’s a pity then that he never got the chance to face any. With 120 minutes on the clock, Gündogan angled a toe-poked shot from the left-hand edge of the area. It ricocheted off the post, struck Fejzic on the back, Pepe Reina-style, and crossed the line.
Cue a euphoric dash to the corner flag where, pursued by his teammates, Gündogan ended up at the bottom of a Dortmund pile-on.
Celebrations were marred when Großkreutz headed directly for Fürth striker Gerald Asamoah, a former player with rivals Schalke, to rub it in a bit. Dortmund born and bred, he couldn’t resist and might have overstepped the mark. While separating the players, Fürth defender Mergim Mavraj claimed to Bild that he overheard a racial slur from Großkreutz, a serious allegation that the Dortmund player strongly denies.
It was an unsavory incident that has taken some of the shine off Dortmund’s victory. It remains to be seen what, if any, course of action will be taken as, when asked for a comment, Asamoah simply said that Großkreutz wasn’t worth it.
In the meantime, Bayern and Gladbach will duke it out tonight to decide who will contest the final with Dortmund in Berlin on May 12. Can either of them stop Klopp and his players doing the double?
This article first appeared on The Score