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'The bomb attack changed everything' - Dortmund's rise to the verge of improbable Bundesliga win

BVB visit the Allianz Arena to face Bayern Munich this evening in the biggest game in Europe this weekend.

Dortmund fans unfurl a banner reading 'Scheisse Bayern Munich'
Dortmund fans unfurl a banner reading 'Scheisse Bayern Munich'
Image: Imago/PA Images

WHILE JURGEN KLOPP bids to slay a giant in England, his former side are looking to do likewise in Germany for this first time since his departure. 

Borussia Dortmund have mounted an improbable title challenge in the Bundesliga this season, and Saturday evening offers them a chance to throw a potentially critical blow as they head to the Allianz Arena to face Bayern Munich. 

A dizzying, topsy-turvy season has reached its final stages with Dortmund two points clear of Bayern at the top of the league with seven games to go. 

Ever since Klopp celebrated the second of his league titles in 2012, Bayern have struck back with cold vengeance: they’ve since won six straight league titles, the longest winning sequence in Bundesliga history. 

(SP)GERMANY-MUNICH-SOCCER-BAYERN MUNICH-CELEBRATION Bayern celebrate their league triumph last May. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

That they have done so with a side buttressed by former Dortmund title winners makes it all the more chastening for their historic opponents: Robert Lewandowski, Mats Hummels and, to a lesser extent, Mario Gotze have all contributed to Bayern’s domination. 

This success has added a sinister edge to Bayern’s benevolence in loaning Dortmund €2 million in 2004 to cover their wage bill while the Ruhr club veered toward bankruptcy; it ultimately helped Dortmund sign and produce players who would later become crucial for Bayern. 

This season, however, the recent Bayern verities have begun to erode. Gotze is back at Dortmund, Hummels is aging and in line to be replaced, and while Lewandowski’s remains the league’s top-scorer, his all-round game has diminished. 

There have been contrasting problems regarding age and experience: this has been a season too far for Bayern’s reliance on Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, while in manager Niko Kovac they have an inexperienced manager not yet comfortable with the attacking demands that are the luxury of the elite. 

Kovac’s limits were laid bare in the two-legged Champions League defeat to Klopp’s Liverpool: whereas they defended exceptionally well to earn a 0-0 draw at Anfield in the first-leg, they couldn’t figure out what to do when it fell to them to attack in the return tie. 

Not that any of these problems for Bayern were unforeseen before the season began. What has been surprising has been Dortmund’s ability to exploit the champions’ vulnerability. 

Last season, they were risible. Having sacked Thomas Tuchel, his successor Peter Bosz was fired by December in a season in which they lost Ousmane Dembele to Barcelona and finished fourth, 29 points behind Bayern.

Their summer business wasn’t exactly a statement of intent: Lucien Favre was appointed from Nice, while on the pitch they signed Axel Witsel from the Chinese Super League, striker Paco Alcacer on loan from Barcelona and Thomas Delaney – an underwhelming veteran of many an Ireland/Denmark clash – from Werder Bremen. 

So how, exactly, are they now in a position to go five points clear of Bayern Munich with six games to go? 

“With Dortmund there are two things that are rarely mentioned”, says Uli Hesse, a German football expert and author of Tor! The Story of German Football. 

The first, says Hesse, is luck.

Dortmund benefitted from plenty of it in the first few weeks of the season, even in the 4-1 opening-day win against RB Leipzig, after which opposition manager Ralf Rangnick found himself wondering how exactly his side had lost the game. 

From there: Dortmund played terribly away to Brugge in the Champions League yet won with five minutes left with a deflected goal; they beat Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 with a couple of goals in the final five minutes; they found a late equaliser away to Hoffenheim with ten men; then Augsburg were beaten 4-3 at home with a 96th minute Alcacer goal. 

Dortmund, firo: 30.03.2019, football, 1.Bundesliga, season 2018/2019, BVB, Borussia Dortmund - VfL Wolfsburg, Paco Alcacer celebrates yet another critical Dortmund goal against Wolfsburg. Source: DPA/PA Images

Then, all of a sudden, everything clicked: a 4-0 home win against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League that was the worst defeat of Diego Simeone’s reign. 

“It was just a group game”, says Hesse, “but there was a real buzz around town afterward. Despite all the lucky goals, that was the moment you realise it is no fluke.

“Then Bayern began dropping points, and then people started believing they could go all the way.” 

Dortmund eventually found themselves nine points clear…but then they wobbled. Badly.

They inexplicably blew a 3-0 lead in 15 minutes against Hoffenheim, were held goalless by relegation certs Nurnberg and lost to 15th-placed Augsburg. 

Bayern, meanwhile, found form: they won 12 of 13 games to nudge Dortmund from the summit. Last weekend, however, brought another twist as Bayern were held 1-1 by Freiburg while Dortmund sealed a 2-0 win against Wolfsburg.

Everything changed within an added-time minute: Lewandowski contrived to miss an open goal just as Alcacer fired Dortmund ahead. The Bayern striker would then miss another chance as Alcacer scored a second. 

The second factor in Dortmund’s rise, says Hesse, is their moving on from the collective trauma of two years ago. 

Trial concerning the bomb attack on the BVB bus - judgement Sergej Wenergold is handcuffed and led away following his conviction of attempted murder. Source: DPA/PA Images

As the squad travelled to the Westfalnstadion for their Champions League quarter-final against Monaco on 11 April 2017, three roadside bombs were detonated beneath the team bus. There were, mercifully, only two injuries as defender Marc Bartra and a policeman were wounded. 

The game was cancelled but went ahead the very next day in spite of Dortmund’s protestations. They unsurprisingly lost 3-2.

The man responsible for the bombs, Sergei Wenergold, was last October sentenced to 14 years for attempted murder. Grotesquely, he had planned to money out of the bombing by betting on a fall in Borussia Dortmund’s stock market price.

Two years on, only six of the players who were on the bus during the attack remain at the club while manager Thomas Tuchel has moved on to PSG. 

Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke admitted in a recent interview with German football magazine 11Freunde that “after the attack, nothing was the same as before”, saying that “the attack changed us.”

He also admitted in the same interview that the aftermath of the attack partly led to the dismissal of Thomas Tuchel. 

“The bomb attack changed everything”, says Hesse. “It indirectly led to the sacking of Thomas Tuchel and threw the club into emotional turmoil. Almost the entire team has been changed.

“It has to have had some kind of effect. You probably can’t quantify that, but if you have a group of people, they won’t be the players they were before.” 

There has been much speculation as to exactly what triggered Tuchel’s departure, with some reports claiming he alienated many members of the squad in ignoring their concerns in his willingness to play the quarter-final 24 hours after the attack. 

Borussia Dortmund v Monaco - UEFA Champions League  - Quarter Final - First Leg - Westfalenstadion The damage done to the Dortmund team bus as a result of the bomb attack. Source: DPA/PA Images

 Some of the new members of the squad have been critical in Dortmund’s rise this season: Delaney and Witsel have added some much-needed steel in midfield, while Alcacer has scored 16 goals; five of them beyond the 90-minute mark. 

The biggest revelation, however, has been Jadon Sancho.

“Incredible”, says Hesse of his impact.

He is, at his age, fulfilling the promise that Christian Pulisic had. We thought Pulisic would become a really indispensable player, but Sancho has.

“There was a lot of talk after the World Cup of the players Germany lack, and it’s guys like him; those who can take on one or two defenders and beat them.

“This is absolutely important in modern football as you don’t have that much space.” 

The most important player of them all, however, has been at the club since 2012.

Marco Reus is once again thriving under the management of Favre – the pair worked together at Borussia Monchengladbach and Reus has called him “probably the best coach I’ve ever had” – and his fitness and maturity have been critical for Dortmund this season. 

“Marco Reus has really grown”, testifies Hesse. “I’m not sure if it’s Favre, he has grown into one of the team leaders.

“I interviewed him three times when he was younger, and he wouldn’t make eye contact and he would lose interest, with his eyes wandering, but he is now really focused: he is talking a lot and has grown up a lot.” 

Bayern have already committed more than €100 million to sign Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard for next season, and with the promise of more spending to come, this may be Dortmund’s best chance for years to break the Bavarian stranglehold. 

Lucien Favre insists that “nothing is decided” by Saturday’s result, but nonetheless, it is a golden opportunity for Dortmund to put themselves in pole position for one of the most improbable European league triumphs in years. 

On TV: BT Sport 1, Saturday 5.15 pm.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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