Borussia Dortmund will not have to qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage via play-offs early next season after clinching third place in the Bundesliga with a 4-3 win over Werder Bremen on the final matchday of the 2016/17 campaign.
In addition to Julian Weigl, who will miss up to four months following surgery on his fractured ankle earlier this week, head coach Thomas Tuchel also had to replace Lukasz Piszczek and, on short notice, captain Marcel Schmelzer. The left-back was included in the official starting XI but suffered a muscle injury in warm-ups, also leaving his status for the DFB-Pokal final in Berlin next weekend in doubt.
In his place, Marc Bartra made his long-awaited return to the pitch, the defender seeing the field for the first time since suffering substantial injuries in the terrorist attack on Dortmund’s players on the team bus on April 11 ahead of the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final tie with Monaco. Erik Durm replaced Piszczek at right-wing-back. Nuri Sahin got the start in Weigl’s position.
The game started with frantic pace and rarely let off throughout the 90 minutes. Both teams had something at stake, as Bremen could have qualified for the UEFA Europa League with some results in other cities going their way. Listing all the chances in the game would go beyond the constraints of this article.
Bremen landed the first punch after just seven minutes, with Zlatko Junuzovic scoring a scrappy goal following a block by Matthias Ginter on Ulisses Garcia. BVB goalkeeper Roman Bürki seemed to have made a phenomenal save but referee Günter Perl pointed to his watch, indicating goal-line technology had ruled it a goal. Indeed, Bürki’s effort came short by a few centimetres.
Dortmund reacted well, with Marco Reus hitting the woodwork with an attempted cross for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the 15th minute. The Gabonese striker should arguably have been awarded a penalty seven minutes later, as Bremen centre-back Niklas Moisander pushed him in an aerial duel with the ball nowhere near the Finland international.
The Black and Yellows got their just reward shortly after the half-hour mark: Reus finished a superb combination of Sahin and Kagawa through the middle with a little fortune, but it was the least Dortmund deserved at that stage.
Crucially, Bürki kept the score intact moments after kick-off, as he extended his right forearm just in time to keep a thunderous effort from Junuzovic out.
Dortmund continued their rampant attacking football and got the lead three minutes from intermission. Another brilliant team goal, Kagawa held the ball with a clever turn near Bremen’s box, finding Ousmane Dembele towards the middle of the field. The Frenchman identified the situation quickly and, in a stroke of the 20-year-old’s genius, played a phenomenal lobbed pass to Aubameyang, playing the ball over seven defenders in one fluid motion. Aubameyang still had a lot to do and scored with an emphatic volley to finish off perhaps the goal of Dortmund’s season.
At half-time Durm, who had been questionable before the game, made way for Christian Pulisic, with Tuchel subsequently going with more of a traditional four-man defence. Bremen identified Dortmund’s changes as an opportunity and played long ball after long ball towards the right side of the hosts’ defence, with Max Kruse getting on the end of one of those within a minute of the game’s restart.
Kruse jetted away from Sahin without any difficulty, the Turkey international showing some understandable rust, and then held the ball up just long enough for Fin Bartels to emerge in the box. A tap-in later, Bremen had equalised.
Another Bremen counter turned the game upside down in the 68th minute, with Kruse chipping Bürki and Bartra just missing the ball with an attempted overhead-kick clearance on the line. Bürki could arguably have come out of his goal sooner, it seemed as though there was a lack of communication between him and Matthias Ginter.
At this stage, Dortmund were only fourth and would have been dependent on Augsburg scoring an unlikely away win at Hoffenheim. To their credit, the Black and Yellows didn’t let it come to that.
Following two strong saves from Felix Wiedwald on Pulisic and Bartra in the 70th minute, Reus won a penalty off Serge Gnabry. Dortmund’s captain on the day dispatched the spot kick himself, foregoing Aubameyang in his quest for the Torjägerkanone (the trophy for the Bundesliga’s leading goalscorer).
Both teams went all in for a winner, with BVB getting much closer through Reus and Aubameyang. In the end, it was another penalty that decided the game. Pulisic had made an inspired run that Philipp Bargfrede upended rather clumsily. This time, Aubameyang was to take — much to the dismay of Tuchel, who seemed beside himself after Reus had done so well with his first attempt.
The star striker, however, remained calm and scored not only the goal that ensured Dortmund a third-place finish and a second consecutive season without a single league defeat at Westfalenstadion, but also won him the Torjägerkanone as Robert Lewandowski remained on 30 goals despite Bayern Munich’s big 4-1 win over Freiburg.
What followed were remarkable, heart-warming scenes with Bartra getting a huge ovation in front of the Yellow Wall and Aubameyang celebrating his scoring title with team-mates and fans. Both the Catalan and the Gabonese shed a few tears as they were emotionally overwhelmed by the circumstances.
Now, all the focus shifts on next week, when Dortmund will be clear favourites against Eintracht Frankfurt in the cup final. Having secured their goal in the Bundesliga, a first real trophy since 2012 is on the cards in Berlin’s Olympiastadion.