A 1-0 win over Sporting CP was enough for Borussia Dortmund to advance to the round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday. Adrian Ramos scored the only goal of the evening in front of a sellout crowd in the Westfalenstadion.
The big news came roughly an hour and a half before kick-off. Star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was left out of the squad for “internal reasons,” as both German TV broadcasters Sky and ZDF reported. Naturally, it overshadows much of the pre-game coverage, with both chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke and head coach Thomas Tuchel staying relatively mum on the subject.
Watzke merely called it a “coach’s decision,” while Tuchel implicitly confirmed the Gabonese had been suspended for the match. By the time of this writing no reports have emerged as to what exactly happened, but it certainly has the feel of a disciplinary issue.
Aubameyang watched the match from the stands but left a few minutes early – presumably to beat the horrendous post-match traffic around the Westfalenstadion.
It was only fitting that his replacement, Ramos, scored the decisive goal in the 12th minute.
It came on the end of a brilliant team move. Sokratis Papastathopoulos played a long ball toward Christian Pulisic. The young American controlled it beautifully and laid off for Mario Götze. The summer signing showed good vision to pick out Matthias Ginter – deployed at right-back against Sporting – on the wing, who played in a superb cross. Ramos finished it off well, a header with great touch leaving Rui Patricio no chance.
Going forward, Dortmund were at-times mesmerising in the first half. Pulisic had his way with Marvin Zeegelaar on the right wing, combining very well especially with Götze. A lovely one-two between the 18-year-old and the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner almost brought a second goal in the 34th minute, but Pulisic only smashed the crossbar.
Further chances from Ousmane Dembele and Raphael Guerreiro should have given the Black and Yellows a more comfortable lead at the break. Pulisic also had a stonewall penalty appeal turned down inside of three minutes, as former Liverpool defender Sebastian Coates pulled away his standing leg inside the box.
After half-time, Tuchel brought on Andre Schürrle for Dembele and switched to a 5-4-1 system in an attempt to balance attack and defence better. The hosts had left too much space for Sporting in the first half and relied on goalkeeper Roman Bürki and last-ditch defending to keep the lead intact.
However, the switch did little to stabilise their own defence and everything to throw a spoke in the works of their own attack, with Dortmund creating next to nothing from open play in the second period. Free-kicks from Guerreiro and Schürrle were the only scoring opportunities.
A mistake-prone second half ensued, with Sporting driving for an equaliser without showing the necessary quality to actually get one and Dortmund having trouble to even play out of the back without giving the ball away cheaply.
Bringing on Sebastian Rode and Lukasz Piszczek for the tiring midfield pairing of Götze and Gonzalo Castro did not help Dortmund’s laborious build-up play one bit. If truth be told, it was a horrible half of football.
However, in this case the end justified the means, as Dortmund kept their clean sheet and thus qualified for the next round after only four matchdays. Thanks to Real Madrid’s shocking 3-3 draw at Legia Warsaw, the Ruhr side is also in a prime position to win the group.
The performance will not give the team much of a confidence boost, though, ahead of the trip to bogey team Hamburger SV on the weekend.
The lead-up to the Bundesliga match will likely again be overshadowed by Aubameyang talk, especially after Tuchel said that there had been no alternative but to go into the game without the striker.
It is a strong signal both to the team and the public to – let’s call it what it is – suspend one of, if not the best player of your club ahead of a crucial Champions League match. If nothing else, Tuchel should now have the full attention of his squad.
Whether we will learn what actually happened or not, one can assume it is a needless distraction in a time where Dortmund are struggling to assert themselves without having to deal with sideshow issues.
The situation should not cover up the fact that the Black and Yellows still have not given even only a halfway decent 90-minute performance since they ran riot over a four-game spell in September.
The joy of advancing in European football’s premier competition is unlikely to last for more than one night.