Tuesday Night Fever

Scoring in a spectacular fashion: on Tuesday, Kehl had his moment of glory.

With games like this, it’s easy to understand how top German clubs manage to fill their stadiums tight every weekend. The country’s wealth that allows people to regularly buy tickets is one thing, but when there are three extra-time horrors in four competitive matches – no fan in the world can be disappointed. How different DFB Pokal can be from Bayern-dominated Bundesliga! Even Guardiola’s team, which basically has their third consecutive domestic title in the bag, has to struggle in penalties with Leverkusen – all that while most dangerous league rivals barely, barely edge past Freiburg. Meanwhile, 3rd Liga (!) leaders Arminia Bielefeld eventually take out third best German club at the moment – Borussia Monchengladbach. And, of course, the highlight of this round: Dortmund and Hoffenheim squaring off against each other: scoring five goals and playing a dramatic, two-hour battle decided by a wondergoal. In days, when every other notable game in Europe (see: Atletico vs Sociedad, Fiorentina vs Juventus or PSG vs Saint-Etienne) turns out to be one-sided, German Cup provides an interesting contrast. But, after all: we’re talking about the country, where the gap between relegation zone and first European qualification spot is only 14-point wide! Compared to England (28 points), Italy (26), Spain (25) or France (23) – nobody should really be surprised about nail-bitting performances and unexpected triumphants.

On Tuesday, Signal Iduna Park found itself in the eye of the storm – and for a good reason. As it stands, both BvB and TSG really need this trophy to salvage something from their underwhelming 2014-15 campaign. Jürgen Klopp and his lads had an abysmal start of the season, temporarily dropping to the relegation zone while Bayern and other powerhouses ran away with 3 points after 3 points. The injuries plagued Borussia’s defensive line. Their back-up players struggled to fit in. Ciro Immobile flopped horribly and was eventually benched for good in favour of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Henrikh Mkhitaryan could not score a goal or provide an assist for exactly 29 hours of play in all competitions between August 13th, 2014 and February 28th, 2015. The more team slumped in Bundesliga – the better their results were in Champions League. Only in February, this bizarre trend reversed and the team escaped relegation dogfight for good, winning four league games in a row. At the same time, though, Dortmund were manhandled in Europe by Juventus (1-5 on aggregate) and nobody really knew what’s up with this team. “If you are not strong enough, then you can’t mind going out of the Champions League” – said Klopp, referencing both his teams’ dire situation in Bundesliga and it’s persistent injury problems. True – but with 17 points away from CL football next season, German Cup was Dortmund’s best chance to redeem themselves.

Meanwhile, Hoffenheim opened the season with a nine-game unbeaten streak and had certain Champions League ambitions at one point – only to ruin their chances later. Eight league defeats between November and February – including failures in prestigous games with Gladbach, Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and… Dortmund – that was brutal. In those 8 games, The Villagers have conceded exactly the half of 42 goals they’ve managed to lose for this entire Bundesliga season so far, re-introducing their fans to the problem they’ve been struggling with for years. To put it bluntly: this team has always been in favor of an all-out attacking football, not really caring for keeping possession or for playing a solid passing game – and that used to notoriously damage their defensive record. Hoffenheim’s strength lies within counterattacks and individual skill of the playmaker Roberto Firmino. As long as he was lethal in front of the oppositions’ goals – everything was fine. However, the Brazilian star, who was just recently given more chances in Dunga’s national team, cannot find his 2013-14 form. Back then, he ended up with 16 goals and 12 assists, while now, seven games before the season’s finish, he’s still only on 6 goals and 8 assists. And the back line? 2.05 goals per game conceded in 2013-14 campaign compared to 1.55 goal per game conceded this season. An actual improvement: from abysmal to “only” terrible.

In view of all these facts, it was clear that Tuesday’s game will have goals. Gundogan’s terrible attempt from distance five minutes into the game did not change this impression: neither team was keen to keep the ball in the middle of the pitch and dangerous crosses soon started to pour on both ends. The home side were visibly better on the ball, created a half-chance to score when Kagawa headed long ball on path of Mkhitaryan, who took a great shot, but wasn’t tricky enough to beat Baumann. The Japanese was an important element in BvB puzzle, actively seeking the ball and not afraid at all to play with his back against opposition’s goal – something that Lewandowski used to be designed for before he left the club. He was the one who benefited the most from multiple interceptions made by Sven Bender and Neven Subotić. In 17th minute, the Serbian swept yet another ball, pushed forward in Mats Hummels’ style and sent forward Błaszczykowski, who won a corner. The final word belonged to Dortmund sweeper, though, as he connected with a set-piece cross and scored a bouncing effort that went in off the far post. Unfortunately for Subotić, he wasn’t focused enough 100 seconds later, when another corner ball came into his own box and Kevin Volland scored a fabulous, left-foot volley from 12 meters. It wasn’t just “first dangerous shot “; it was literally first visitors’ attempt on Langerak’s goal!

 Kevin Volland scored the most sensational goal… until the extra time happened.

 

 If that was poor effort on Dortmund’s defence behalf, then another goal for Hoffenheim 7 minutes later was a true disaster. Man of the Hour Subotić embraced his inner Mr Hyde and miscontrolled a clearance from Andreas Beck, leaving the ball to Roberto Firmino roughly 30 meters away from Dortmund’s goal. Brazilian midfielder might not be in the best shape this season, but he’s good enough to convert one-on-one chance like this. His cute chip over Langerak left BvB suddenly behind and Klopp so disgusted with this defensive performance, he had to actually smile awkwardly to cover up his contempt. His pupils were forcing TSG back into a defensive mode, but without Marco Reus, who suffered minor injury in training and missed out, the chances weren’t coming fast enough to make any difference before the half-time. Aubameyang had one attempt from a difficult angle and Kagawa almost ran with the ball into the net after an inspired buildup between Mkhitaryan and Błaszczykowski – but no player in Borussia’s shirt had the skill to actually finish those rare chances with a lethal shot. At the same time, Sokratis saved his team from one or two more disasters at the back, as Hoffenheim’s balls over the top and wing play down the right-hand side were occasionally dangerous. Overall, during the break, it looked like an another case of BvB losing by not being able to score despite having the obvious control over the game.

 

It did change for the better in the second half. Mkhitaryan and Gündoğan finally managed to link couple first-touch passes together, leading to a clear chance, wasted by the latter. Along with the Armenian, Marcel Schmelzer started to involve himself with the attacking play, outnumbering Beck together down the wing. Hoffenheim hardly got a sniff on the ball in this part of the game and it didn’t take long for a frustration to creep in, as Pirmin Schweigler received booking for a dirty, professional foul on Błaszczykowski. Few seconds later, Erik Durm, who’s been absent from BvB squad for a very long time, played a perfect, curling cross on Aubameyang’s head. Gabonese striker hit it perfectly and the pressure Dortmund players put on visitors finally paid off. For the first time in this game, Villagers’ defenders looked distracted: they almost allowed another goal when Bičakčić gave the ball away to Kagawa, who immediately set up Aubameyang. This time, the luck was on Baumann’s side: BvB strikers’ shot went narrowly wide. Markus Gisdol’s side looked out of ideas in the final third: the most they managed to produce was one long ball to Firmino, shut down by Langerak before the Brazilian could reach the ball. They can count themselves lucky that it was late enough for Borussia’s dynamic style to take it’s toll on players’ legs – otherwise, extra time might not have been necessary.

Subotić almost clinched it in 78th minute with a header, when Hoffenheim’s marking was left in the dust again after corner ball came in. This nearly backfired seven minutes later, when a single counter left Eugen Polanski in a perfect position for a shot. The accuracy was there, but the power wasn’t and Langerak earned his wages for the week. Australian goalie did well, but the real test for him came when he was faced with Firmino again and stopped him with a fine save. The referee had no choice: he had to add another half on an hour to this titanic struggle.

If anyone wondered why Mkhitaryan couldn’t score for over five months, got his answer seven minutes after the game restarted in an extra time. Subotić superbly sent forward his Armenian colleague with a long ball. Dortmund’s number 10 moved forward perfectly, chested the pass perfectly, positioned his right foot perfectly and… blasted the ball so high in the air, it probably hit several Sputniks circulating Earth. Klopp, who spent the full-time break further motivating his exhausted players, had enough of it and got rid of Mkhitarian by subbing Kevin Kampl in. Immediately after that, Dortmund nearly clinched it again by winning the ball in front of Baumann’s goal only to have Kagawa’s shot blocked. It was a period of total BvB’s domination: Kampl fired a potential match winner that got saved; Schmelzer permanently reassigned himself as a winger. Something had to get in eventually. And it did! After Kagawa’s cross got cleared from the penalty area, Sebastian Kehl came out of nowhere, saw the ball rebounding directly to his left foot and unleashed a killer shot that went in off the right post. It was easily the best long shot we’ve seen this year in European football – and it could’ve been immediately followed with another goal, when Kampl’s header was fabulously stopped by Baumann. Who knew that a team that was banging their heads against the wall for most of the game will strike so late?

As usual in such situations, final five minutes turned into a battle of nerves. Błaszczykowski rested on the grass for a while; Kehl made a panicky clearance from his own box, kicking the ball out of the stadium like Mkhitaryan did before. Dortmund nearly paid for their absolutely awful set-piece defending skills when Andreas Beck got on the end of a free header after yet another corner. Firmino’s final brace inside the stoppage allowed him to get a cross inside BvB’s box, but it was not enough to score an equalizer and the home side finally got to celebrate their victory.

“We were a tad better than the result suggests” insisted Klopp and rightfully so. “The DFB Cup now represents our only chance of silverware this season.” added heroic Kehl, who also expressed his hopes of having an easier task in the semifinal. Well, he’s surely going to be disappointed: after advancing to the next round, Borussia was paired with Bayern Munich and will travel to Allianz Arena on Tuesday 28th April, to face the toughest opponent one can imagine. On paper, Dortmund team doesn’t stand a chance. However, Bavarians are still involved in the Champions League and their injury list already remains impressive with Thiago Alcantara, Javi Martínez, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and most recently, David Alaba all being sidelined due to muscle problems. Pep already complained about being forced to choose from only 16 healthy players – and it’s not like his club prioritizes German Cup when there’s a still realistic chance to win silverware in Europe. There will be more injuries for both sides in the meantime, as well as more momentum swings – but as for now, BvB really do have the power to knock their sworn rivals out. Conditions? Only one: be more efficient with their attacks, as there won’t be nearly as many chances to do the damage to the Champions as there were against Hoffenheim. And whoever wins this semifinal will be a heavy favourite later – in Berlin…

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