Yesterday was supposed to be Real Madrid's. We were all set to write about Cristiano Ronaldo being maybe the most complete player in the world after a brace against a tough Galtasaray side. Or maybe about how the defending Spanish champs look a decent bet to hoist the Champions League trophy next month. Then Dortmund punched in a cheat code.
During the Real Madrid game, history was being made in Germany in the quarterfinal second leg between Bundesliga heavies Borussia Dortmund and overachieving Malaga. Dortmund, largely powered by three budding superstars—midfielders Mario Götze and Marco Reus, and forward Robert Lewandowski—are one of the most exciting and dangerous clubs in the world. But they're also one of the best-kept secrets, since they're always overshadowed by Bayern Munich. Bayern won the league outright almost two months before season's end, and are blowing away Europe's best in the Champions League.
Dortmund are a juggernaut, too, and consistent. They're the only team to go unbeaten in the tournament. But to advance to the semifinal, they had to beat Malaga, a side largely made up of has-beens and might-bes that somehow found a way to steal a crucial 0-0 draw at home.
Malaga had the advantage going into yesterday's second leg. Another scoreless draw would only send the match to overtime and penalties, where anything could happen. And if Malaga were able to find the net, Dortmund would have to win outright or be eliminated from the tournament.
From the kick it was obvious that Malaga, led by manager Manuel Pellegrini, who buried his father on Monday, were happy to sit back and let Dortmund hurl itself forward. Both sides played a 4-2-3-1, but that's where the similarities ended. One of the things that make Dortmund so much fun and so hard to beat is their constant tenacity no matter who has the ball. They have a flamboyant, energetic front four that plays at a breakneck tempo up and down the pitch, confusing and exposing defenses with their fluid movement on offense, and pressing high on opposing outside backs when defending. Malaga, however, were having none of it.
When Dortmund centerbacks Neven Subotic and Felipe Santana had the ball, their first thought was to initiate the attack through their two central defensive midfielders, Sven Bender and İlkay Gündogan, who acted as a link between the back four and the BVB attack. But when defending, Malaga forward Julio Baptista dropped back into the midfield, and with attacking midfielder Joaquin, occupied Bender and Gündogan. Malaga's wingers, Duda and Spanish starlet Isco, positioned themselves to discourage the centerbacks from using the outside backs as outlets. They forced the ball back into the middle, usually the strength of a 4-2-3-1, but now only a logjam. While there was little pressure, there was nowhere for Dortmund's centerbacks to play it. The pace frustrated the German side, who like to play quickly. And it also shortened the game. Dortmund has so much firepower in Lewandowski, who leads the Bundesliga in goals, and Götze and Reus. But by compacting as a team, plugging gaps in the midfield, and forcing the centerbacks to hold the ball, Malaga slashed the number of Dortmund possessions, and with it, goal opportunities.
The tactic worked, and beautifully. Though the Germans dominated possession, there weren't many clear chances in the beginning of the match. And in the 25th minute, disaster struck. Baptista bombed through the midfield with the ball on a mini-counter attack before clipping a ball into Joaquin, who drifted to the right side of the box. Joaquin played a clever 1-2 pass with Isco around Dortmund left back Marcel Schmelzer, then cut inside onto his left foot at the top of the box, and squeezed a shot through Subotic's legs and into the back of the net. Malaga was up 1-0. Dortmund could only advance with a win.
As the half went on, Dortmund slowly puzzled out the Malaga defense. Götze, who started the match behind Lewandowski, started floating throughout the midfield from sideline to sideline, while Reus and right winger Jakub Blaszczykowski also dropped deeper to collect the ball. In the 40th minute, right back Lukasz Piszczek corralled the ball on the right, and played a short pass to Blaszczykowski, standing on the sideline near midfield. He quickly played another short ball around the corner of three Malaga midfielders to Götze, who was open with space. Götze took one touch, looked up and found Reus on the back line. The ball was a little behind Reus, but the winger reached back and with one touch, flicked the ball perfectly and incredibly into the path of a charging Lewandowski. One more touch around the keeper, and the home side were level.
What's really worth noting here is the speed in which Dortmund broke through and exploited the Malaga defense. This is the tenacity, we mentioned, highlighted by their attackers' cutting runs through the defense without the ball. Look at the distance Lewandowski travels over two passes to received the final through ball. The Reus pass wasn't too bad, either.
In the second half, Dortmund pressed on for the second goal they'd need to advance. They controlled the game and created chances, but Malaga looked solid enough to hold on. After 25 minutes, Dortmund subbed forward Julian Schieber on for Blaszczykowski and moved Götze to the right. They switched to an offensive-minded 4-2-4, with Reus and Götze pressing high on Malaga's back line like outside forwards.
This came with a trade-off. With everyone pressing forward and just two central players in the midfield, there was room on the Dortmund flanks just begging to be exploited. And in the 82nd minute, Malaga found it. Isco broke the Dortmund left side down with a one-two pass, then with acres of space, found Baptista running diagonally behind Santana at the edge of the box. Baptista rolled a shot past the keeper, which was finished by Malaga sub Eliseu.
Eliseu was offside, but it was close and it might have been understandable of the assistant referee to keep his flag down. So that seemed like it. To win, Dortmund would need two goals in 10 or so minutes.
With time waning, Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp subbed on centerback Mats Hummels for midfielder Gündogan. It was a counterintuitive move, because most managers would sub on an extra attacker, or even a midfielder. But Dortmund were dumping balls into the box in hopes of a miracle. Just about everyone from both teams were camped in Malaga's box. The Germans didn't need a midfield. And Hummels, who usually starts at centerback and is an exceptional long passer, was free to loft balls forward while Subotic and Santana charged in for headers against the smaller Spaniards.
The first one came from preparation mixed with dumb luck. In the first minute of stoppage time, Hummels played a looping ball into the Malaga box, which Argentine centerback Martín Demichelis misjudged. The ball dropped at the feet of Subotic, who played the ball across the face of the goal, where Reus finally hammered it home.
One minute later, with almost no time left on the clock, Lewandowski collected a throw-in and served a last-ditch cross into the box. Schieber headed the ball down behind the defense to Reus on the left side of the box. With his first touch, Reus drove the ball past Willy and across goal to Santana, who carried the ball over the line from an inch out.
Never was a miracle so workmanlike. Game over, quarterfinal over. Germans dancing in the streets. Germans flipping Mercedes.
Yes, Dortmund had four men offside on the cross, including Schieber and Reus. Call it a makeup call or a linesman's appreciation of history, but it didn't matter.
The truth of the matter is Dortmund deserved to win, and their ability and persistence more than outweighed whatever luck they received. Their reward? Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, or Barcelona, pending today's matches. They likely won't be favored.
But they have Subotic and Hummels, and Reus and Götze and Lewandowski. Judging from yesterday, they might have God. And with Dortmund just 180 minutes away from the final at Wembley, Europe's new giants-in-waiting may not need the patience to say "maybe next year."