Borussia Dortmund came back from a 2-0 deficit at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday evening, earning a point and, with it, won Group F of the UEFA Champions League.
Head coach Thomas Tuchel surprised with his decision to move away from the back five/back three hybrid that had worked well in matches against Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga, instead opting for a four-man defensive line, three central midfielders in Julian Weigl, Gonzalo Castro and Ousmane Dembele and wingers Andre Schurrle and Christian Pulisic.
Matthias Ginter fell victim to the system change and was relegated to the bench, as was Marco Reus, who suffered from a cold during the week.
Tuchel’s plan not to concede dominance over the midfield areas of the pitch to Real meant players such as Schürrle, Castro, Pulisic and Dembele had to cover a lot of ground in counter-pressing. While they did their work diligently, it was obvious that their creative potential suffered from it. Dortmund time and time again lacked precision when they advanced the ball into Real’s half, wasting the precious few moments of possible danger on Keylor Navas’ goal.
Due to Real’s unwillingness to build up their plays methodically, it was a fairly frantic encounter with much of the focus lying on transitions, where the hosts seemed to have a physical edge in most situations during the opening 45 minutes.
Roman Weidenfeller, who once again replaced the injured Roman Bürki in goal, had more opportunities to show he still has something left in the tank than in previous matches,getting tested early and often by Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez.
It came as no surprise that a transitional moment brought the first goal of the match. Left-
back Marcel Schmelzer pressed high up the pitch but no one covered his space defensively. Whether it should have been Schürrle dropping deeper or Marc Bartra moving outside more quickly, it was probably a lack of communication and a wrong split-second decision.
In any case, Real right-back Daniel Carvajal had acres of space on the wing and played in an accurate ball to Benzema, who was not marked overly tightly by Lukasz Piszczek and poked home for a deserved lead for the hosts.
Due to their inaccuracies, it took the Black and Yellows until the final five minutes of the half to produce anything of substance going forward, with a Pulisic shot and a Schürrle free-kick forcing saves from Costa Rica international Keylor. In a perfect illustration of their attacking efforts, Dortmund’s biggest chance was one that never was, as Castro over-hit into the box that should have left Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with a golden opportunity to equalise.
Real doubled their lead through Benzema after only eight minutes of play in the second interval. Weidenfeller first did brilliantly to deny the Frenchman from short range, but Dortmund failed to clear the ball and get enough men behind it, with Benzema not missing again from a James cross.
With the game seemingly in the books, Real became more lackadaisical in their defence and opened the door for Dortmund, who looked more lively in the second half. Dembele, who had his problems in an unusual central role in the first 45 minutes, upped his game significantly and completed a number of dribbles that showed his team Real could be troubled on the day.
A classic “Dortmund 2015/16” goal brought the visitors back into the game. Weigl played a perfectly weighted lobbed pass into the path of Schmelzer, who had timed his run toward the goal line to perfection. The team captain kept his composure and played the ball first-time, squaring for Aubameyang, who was left with little more than a tap-in.
The rest of the match turned into an open fight of two teams who had the luxury of already having qualified for the round of 16 before the first whistle. Real should arguably have had a third goal, but a strong Weidenfeller save against Cristiano Ronaldo and a goal-line clearance from substitute Reus to deny Benzema a hat-trick kept Dortmund in the game. Ronaldo also hit the post 12 minutes from time.
The Ruhr side kept pushing for an equaliser and found it when Real committed too many men forward in the 89th minute. Substitute Emre Mor stole the ball from left-back Marcelo and released Aubameyang with a perfect pass behind the last line of defence. The Gabonese speedster sprinted forward, allowing Reus to get in position in the box. A simple-enough ball across the face of goal and a smart finish from the Germany international later, Dortmund had won their group.
What it Means
Even though Real had more and better chances, the Black and Yellows deserved to come away with a positive result after having a proper go despite having relatively little to play for. Coming back from a two-goal deficit at the Santiago Bernabeu is no small feat and should provide a nice morale boost ahead of the final matches before the winter break in the Bundesliga.
Dortmund are the only German team to win their group in the Champions League this season, limiting the number of possible opponents in the next round to just five: Manchester City, Paris St. Germain, FC Sevilla, Benfica and Porto.
Because of various constellations and regulations, there is almost a 50 per-cent chance Dortmund will face either Man City or Sevilla in the round of 16. City, of course, would mean a reunion with former BVB midfielder Ilkay Gündogan and Pep Guardiola, a manager Tuchel looks up to. The Sky Blues somewhat resemble Dortmund this season, as in they’re capable of looking sumptuous but also of conceding stupid goals against just about everyone. In the Champions League, they beat Barca at home but came in second, with Mönchengladbach and Celtic also in their group.
Sevilla are more of an unknown commodity at this stage. The Spaniards are Europa League experts, having won the trophy three times in a row. New head coach Jorge Sampaoli has implemented an interesting system at the Ramon Sanchez Pizchuan stadium, among other things leading to a resurgence of Samir Nasri. The Andalusians came in second in a group with Juventus, Olympique Lyonnais and Dinamo Zagreb.