Borussia Dortmund Broke Atlético Madrid’s Spirit

The beauty of Champions League soccer, at least as compared to drawn-out league campaigns, is that a tie can swing on just minutes. Except in the case of the rarest sort of blowouts, any team at any point has a chance to take destiny in its own hands and snatch back victory. With just a few minutes of concentrated excellence, and a belief that the balance-tipping moment is just around the corner, virtually any side can change its fortunes.

Borussia Dortmund entered Tuesday’s second leg against Atlético Madrid needing some of those pivotal minutes. In the first leg last Wednesday, the German side journeyed to the Spanish capital and found itself down 2-0 in a little over half an hour, about as bleak a situation as there is. Atlético’s vaunted defense might not be at its world-beating best, but giving a Diego Simeone team a two-goal lead to defend is the stuff of dreams for the Argentine manager. Dortmund did itself a massive favor by sneaking in an 81st minute goal in that first match to take a 2-1 deficit back to Germany, but that’s still a lot of work left to do against a team as composed as Atlético (often, though not always) is.

On Tuesday, though, it would be the hosts who would retain their composure and come out ahead. Despite a domestic season to be forgotten—Dortmund is in a virtual tie for fourth place in the Bundesliga, and it just saw someone else finally dethrone Bayern Munich after years of the Black and Yellows giving that particular challenge a go—the Champions League offered salvation, if only Dortmund would grab it. They did so in two short but fruitful bursts that not only handed them the tie, but perhaps also the belief that they can beat anyone by shock and awe.

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The first half of Tuesday’s match was surprisingly sedate, following an early chance for each side. Dortmund, as the side more desperate to create something, controlled the proceedings, and 33 minutes in, they held 60 percent of the ball and out-shot Atlético six to three. Even with those stats, though, the match was even in quality, if not even tilted towards the visitors, who understood that their goal was simply to pull off one more defensive masterclass to secure a spot in the semifinals.

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It was all going so well, until it wasn’t. In the 34th minute, Mats Hummels (he’ll pop back up shortly) hit a beautiful lofted ball into the box that found Julian Brandt in space. Brandt saw his former BVB teammate Axel Witsel covering him, just a step too slow, and burst towards the goal line before squeezing what was either a bad cutback to the center of the box or an optimisitc shot on goal. Whatever Brandt’s intention, the ball hit Atlético goalkeeper Jan Oblak just wrong enough to squeeze past the Slovenian and into the back of the net, equalizing the tie at 2-2 on aggregate:

Before the celebrations inside the Westfalenstadion were complete, Dortmund would strike again, and it would be Witsel again caught out by his former club. After a little one-two combination with Marcel Sabitzer, 22-year-old wingback Ian Maatsen took the ball on the run into the space left behind by Witsel in the box and fired a low far-post shot that beat Oblak once more. Just like that, to the delight of the roaring crowd, the hosts had completely turned the tie around, from a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead.

Were it so simple, though. The period following Maatsen’s goal, stretching both sides of halftime, was as static as the opening 30 minutes, but it felt like more goals were coming. It’s one thing to expect Atlético to hold on to a one-goal lead, as the club has done many times in league and continental play. It’s another to expect a team from the famously wide-open Bundesliga to do it. The feeling was that Dortmund would either extend its lead and the home crowd’s party, or there would be a match truly on. It turned out to be the latter.

In the 49th minute, Hummels would add his name to the scoresheet, but in the wrong direction. A corner-kick cross from Atlético’s Antoine Griezmann landed on the head of Mario Hermoso, who nodded a soft shot in the vague direction of the goal. With no one in blue—quick aside: I absolutely hate these Atlético blue kits—anywhere near him, the veteran German center back mishit a rushed clearance directly past his own goalie, giving Atlético the equalizer and, more importantly, hope of turning things around back in their favor.

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That hope paid off 15 minutes later, thanks to Ángel Correa. After a scramble in the box, the diminutive Argentine uncorked an off-balance volley with his right foot while running away from the ball, an impressive strike even from just about six yards out:

That Atlético’s goals came from a needless defensive mistake and a lucky bounce could have left Dortmund in shambles. It would’ve been perfectly understandable. It’s so hard to come back at all in a knockout game, precisely because an entire tie can flip on moments of luck and momentary brilliance just like this. If Dortmund’s players had hung their heads and admitted defeat after Correa’s strike, well, it would be disappointing but you couldn’t really blame them. But Dortmund’s players resisted, perhaps because it had been less than half an hour of game time since they themselves had shocked Atlético. Could they do it again?

They could, and they did. It would take another furious stretch to do so, and Dortmund had just enough in the tank to pull it off. Seven minutes after Correa’s go-ahead goal, Brandt hit a perfectly weighted through ball to a sprinting Sabitzer on the left side, and the Austrian was able to get just enough separation to send a cross into the box. Striker Niclas Füllkrug’s 6-foot-2 frame was there, and that’s a good target for any bit of speculative crossing. The big German rose up to flick the cross perfectly to the far post where Oblak couldn’t get to it. With just under 20 minutes to go in regular time, the aggregate was once again even, this time at four goals apiece.

Just three minutes later, Emre Can spotted Brandt running into the box and floated the ball up to him from deep, which Brandt nodded down just enough to get it on Füllkrug’s foot. The striker attempted to equalize on his own, but was denied thanks to a perfect José María Giménez slide. Unfortunately for Atlético, the ball bounced straight to Sabitzer, who took an extra touch and earned his Man of the Match award with a stunning left foot laser that flew by multiple Atlético defenders before bouncing off Oblak’s outstretched hand and in:

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It was here, with Dortmund leading 5-4 on aggregate and 16 minutes to go, that the key difference between the two sides manifested most clearly. Whereas Dortmund weathered Atlético’s own comeback and came up with a two-pronged answer shortly after, the visitors had no answer in the remaining time.

Sure, Atlético had 65 percent of the possession from then on, and generally probed around the Dortmund area looking for its own equalizer, but the Colchoneros didn’t muster a single shot the rest of the way. They never truly threatened Gregor Kobel’s goal; instead, Dortmund just absorbed a lot of aimless possession to secure its spot in the semis.

As the final whistle blew on a dejected Atlético, Dortmund, so often down in this tie, celebrated its biggest win of the season to date. The concept of “mentality” is often thrown around as a convenient catch-all capable of explaining any and anything, but it’s hard to scoff at the idea that Dortmund simply held up stronger against adversity than its opponents. That first five-minute burst gave the hosts hope, and hope was all they needed when they trailed again. Thanks to Brandt, and Maatsen, and Füllkrug, and especially Sabitzer, Dortmund is moving on, and it will need every bit of that hope to pull off an even bigger upset against Paris Saint-Germain in the next round. After what the club showed on Tuesday, I know only one thing for sure: Dortmund won’t give up, even in the face of defeat.

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