One half of potential all-German Champions League final set
London looks set to host an all-German Champions League final after Borussia Dortmund weathered the storm from Real Madrid to get past the Spanish side 4-3 on aggregate. Here is the lowdown ...
Jose Mourinho's run of Champions League semifinal defeats at Real Madrid continued into a third season Tuesday night as the longed-for remontada, comeback, never materialized at the Bernabeu. Madrid's win means that dark horse Borussia Dortmund has reached its first final since winning the competition in 1997 and is likely to meet German rival Bayern Munich at Wembley Stadium in just over three weeks.
Had Madrid scored an early goal, the night could have been very different. Instead, it failed to make its dominance in the opening 15 minutes count, and late goals by Karim Benzema (83rd minute) and Sergio Ramos (88th) left Dortmund clinging in a dramatic finale.
Perhaps it would have been different if Benzema had started ahead of Gonzalo Higuain, who set the tone for the evening when his fourth-minute shot went clean through and was saved by Roman Weidenfeller. Madrid had a hatful of early opportunities: Cristiano Ronaldo sliced an effort wide, then volleyed straight at the goalkeeper before Mesut Ozil, also one-on-one, dragged his shot wide of the post.
Higuain had a rotten first half: he was caught offside three times when Madrid had good possession (once, unforgivably, from an Ozil free kick from out wide) and missed that early chance. Would Benzema have scored it? The Frenchman has a far better scoring record in Europe -- 31 goals in 53 games, compared to eight in 42 for Higuain -- and Mourinho's decision to start with the Argentine could have cost Madrid dear.
Benzema replaced Higuain 10 minutes into the second half and scored the goal that gave Madrid hope, slamming in from close range after Ozil's cross from the right. Benzema then set up Ramos with a smart cutback to crash the ball into the roof of the net. In between, his shot was brilliantly tipped over by Weidenfeller.
Madrid was searching for the spirit of 1976, when it overcome Derby County's 4-1 first-leg lead to win 5-1 in Madrid; or the 1985 remontada when it beat Anderlecht 6-0 after losing 3-0; or the 4-0 return win after the 5-1 loss in 1986 to Moenchengladbach. Back then, Jorge Valdano remembered captain Jose Antonio Camacho coming into his room at 7 in the morning.
"He'd come in and ask how you were feeling about the game and he wouldn't leave until you had told him," Valdano said. "Then he'd go into another room and pass his adrenalin to another player. It was like having an Ultra come in and wake you up."
This time, the home fans played the role of Camacho. They chanted, "Si se puede!" ("Yes, we can!") before the game and booed Weidenfeller, who was taking time with his goal kicks from the second minute onward; they jeered as Robert Lewandowski took another Ramos elbow to the head; and whistled when the Polish striker was taken out by Fabio Coentrao, for which the Madrid defender was lucky to only be shown a yellow card. This was the aggression -- and the systematic fouling -- that Mourinho had moaned was missing last week. But the crowd still had no goals to cheer.
The longer Madrid went without scoring, the more the visitors' confidence grew. Even when Mario Götze limped off with a hamstring injury, Dortmund was a threat on the break, though it clearly missed his clever through-balls as Madrid pushed forward and left gaps at the back. As Götze hobbled toward the tunnel, you had to wonder if this was his last appearance for Dortmund; on the day that Bild reported Manchester City offered him a €20 million-per-year deal (that's over £300,000 per week) before he decided to move to Bayern Munich.
The reason? As his grandfather Willi Götze told France Football on Tuesday: "When he was a kid, Mario slept under a Bayern Munich bed cover."
It might be rather convenient -- though not helpful for Dortmund -- if Götze misses out on the final if it is against his future club. Lewandowski, last week's four-goal hero, was channeling Higuain on Tuesday: he missed two second-half chances in quick succession, the second a thunderous shot that cannoned off Diego Lopez's crossbar. The Spanish keeper may have got a touch to it, and there was no doubt he kept his side alive when Ilkay Gundogan met Marco Reus' center with the goal gaping, only for Lopez to dive and somehow push it out. Michael Essien dived to keep out another Lewandowski effort late on.
Weidenfeller, the first-half hero, watched as Angel di Maria, Ronaldo, again, and substitute Kaka, all missed the target. Mats Hummels was outstanding in defense, though when his arm appeared to make contact with the ball on the edge of the area, the Madrid bench jumped up. Mourinho was as animated as he has been over the two legs. Mostly, he just watched on quietly; though when Benzema broke the deadlock, everyone in Madrid dared to dream. It was not to be.
Amid all the talk of "changing of the guard" and "end of an era" in the Spanish game, it's worth noting that Dortmund's starting 11 contained seven German players, compared to Madrid's three Spanish starters. Not only is the German success a local one (their coaches are German, too), but it is more economically viable, too.
The Bundesliga's latest financial report showed that last season's total revenues came to over €2 billion, with 14 of the 18 clubs registering profits and an overall post-tax profit of €55 million. Just look at the average salaries of international transfers coming into Germany compared to other leagues: according to Global Transfer Market 2012, a comprehensive 256-page report produced by FIFA TMS, German clubs paid, on average, significantly lower annual salaries ($390,000) to new international signings than its counterparts in England ($680,000) and Italy ($720,000).
Not everything is perfect. Bayern's dominance this season has made the Bundesliga even less competitive than La Liga; but the hope is that Dortmund won't wilt away like previous Bundesliga winners Kaiserslautern (1998), Werder Bremen (2004), Stuttgart (2007) and Wolfsburg (2009). Most teams spend years knocking on the door of the European elite, falling at the quarterfinal, semifinal and even final stages. Chelsea had reached four of the previous six semifinals before finally winning the competition last season.
And now here is Dortmund, one season after a group-stage elimination, with its charismatic coach, local spine, dynamic style of play and community spirit, one game from being crowned European champion. Who said there is no romance in the game anymore?