Borussia Dortmund may have just turned their season around. After another half of benign football saw them fall two goals behind Inter Milan, it looked like Borussia Dortmund were destined for another defeat and a booked ticket to the Europa League knockout stage. Instead, BVB came out in the second half and played the most enthralling football we’ve seen since Dortmund’s stunning victory over Bayern last fall, and look to have revived their chances at the Champions League Round of 16.
As much as I only want to discuss the glorious second half, we have to discuss the first half too. It wasn’t a bad performance by any means. Dortmund had some good chances, but unfortunately it seemed like every shot went straight to Handanovic or sailed just over the bar. BVB just seemed to lack that killer instinct in the final third, something that has plagued the team over the past few months. Achraf Hakimi would make runs into acres of space along the right wing, but there never seemed to be a Dortmund forward making a run for him to pick out with a cross.
Inter didn’t pile on the shot, but they were clinical with the ones they created. Just like they did against Barcelona, Inter struck the back of the net within ten minutes. Manuel Akanji, who has struggled mightily this season, did nothing to help his case when he tripped lunging for the ball in a challenge with Lautaro Martinez. Akanji completely missed the ball and Martinez was off to the races. He drew Hummels and Witsel wide before cutting inside and smashing a shot past Bürki.
Inter’s second goal wasn’t the result of a defensive lapse, but some excellent ball-movement from the Italian side. Marcel Brozovic executed an impressive skill move to get around Julian Weigl before forwarding the ball to Lautaro Martinez. The Argentine carved BVB open with a perfect weighted ball across the pitch to switch the play to the right side. Candreva collected the ball and laid it right into the path of Matias Vecino, who laced the ball past Bürki.
Everything changed in the second half, and to be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure why. Favre didn’t make any substitutions, nor did he make a formation change. BVB just seemed to step up the intensity: Axel Witsel was pressing higher and positioned further up the pitch, Akanji and Hummels were much more aggressive cutting out through-balls, and BVB’s press seemed to be more cohesive and organized. BVB were rewarded five minutes in with a goal to bring the game within reach.
It was simply a fantastic team goal: Thorgan Hazard overshot the box on a corner kick, but rather than simply let the play die, Nico Schulz ran the ball down like a maniac and forced Antonio Candreva into playing an ill-advised ball blindly into midfield. Hakimi, the eventual goalscorer, brought the ball down and picked out Julian Brandt, who in three touches managed to chest it down lay a pinpoint pass to Mats Hummels, who found Thorgan Hazard on the right. Hazard picked out Götze making a run near-post, who laid a ball back to Hakimi, who had tracked the play with a run near the penalty spot. His finish wasn’t clean, but it didn’t matter. Dortmund’s goal was a result of pressing from Schulz, quick ball progression from Hakimi and Brandt, and an aggressive run from Götze which drew Milan’s defenders out of position. These aren’t complicated moves, but they’re the types of basic elements of winning football that Dortmund haven’t executed this season.
To this point in the match, the Westfalenstadion’s crowd had been indifferent at best and restless at worst. With Hakimi’s first goal, though, the BVB faithful could smell blood, and like a frenzy of sharks, BVB began to circle their prey. Inter Milan had been relatively comfortable in the first half, but they could barely move the ball past the halfway line in the second half. You could tell by the body language of the players that they were out for more, and it showed in their play. BVB began closing down upon defenders they hadn’t been tracking in the first half. Their passes seemed crisper, and they seemed to be winning challenges they had no business winning in the first half. You could sense an equalizer coming.
It was hardly a surprise that Paco’s substitution made an impact. What was so surprising was that Paco’s literal first touch was a difference maker. Inter Milan were awarded a throw along the right side of their own half, and Inter Milan switched off big time. Paco caught Marcelo Brozovic sleeping a throw-in, crept in from behind the Croatian defender and just poked Antonio Candreva’s throw right to Julian Brandt. Brandt collected the ball and darted right in on goal, squeezing a shot below Handanovic.
Dortmund continued to boss the game, and the go-ahead goal was only a question of “when”, not “if”. Sure enough, it came in the 78th minute. Dortmund’s go-ahead goal wasn’t anything exceptional. It was just the result of the hard work, energy, and audaciousness that BVB had lacked during the first half. Achraf Hakimi played a ball to the feet of Jadon Sancho. With Hakimi following his pass with a run towards the net, Sancho played it back to the moroccan full back, who buried it with calm shot past Handanovic. The already-jumping Westfalenstadion exploded with celebration, the likes of which we haven’t seen at all this season.
Unfortunately, all was not perfect in the second half. With about ten minutes remaining, Jadon Sancho pulled up from a run clutching his hamstring, and had to be subbed off for Lukasz Piszczek. Hopefully it won’t be serious enough to impact Sancho’s availability for the weekend. Sancho was one of the key drivers of BVB’s second-half turnaround, so his absence against Bayern Munich would be a serious blow.
Although Inter Milan seemed to turn up the pressure late in the game, it wasn’t enough to find an equalizer, and BVB managed to see out the match. A roar erupted from the Dortmund faithful. Dortmund had looked dead in the water at the half, but a mesmerizing comeback had renewed the club’s Champions League ambitions. Now, instead of frustration at another victory left on the table, BVB can face Bayern this weekend with a renewed sense of optimism that the club hasn’t felt in months.