Dortmund find combination of intensity and concentration at the perfect point of the season

It was one of those nights when the Westfalenstadion lit all its boilers.  The noise was deafening, the stands burned brilliant yellow and, down on the pitch, Paris Saint-Germain walked into a furnace.

Borussia Dortmund’s 1-0 win in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final had moments of good fortune. PSG were wasteful in front of goal and imprecise with their final passes. But to dwell on that would be to miss the point. Dortmund will take a narrow lead to Paris in a week’s time because of an emotional and compelling performance.

It was full of stories. A redemptive, virtuoso contribution from Jadon Sancho. Tireless effort from Karim Adeyemi. And perhaps the finest goal of Niklas Fullkrug’s long, meandering career.

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(Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

For head coach Edin Terzic, this had to be deeply satisfying. Terzic is rarely not under pressure and is often accused, with cause, of being tactically limited and depending too much on the talent of his individual players. That debate will not end soon, but Dortmund were astute on Wednesday and Terzic deserves praise for his selections.

In particular, the combinations on both flanks were well balanced and effective. Julian Ryerson provided a strong platform for Sancho on the right. On the left, Adeyemi’s speed offered vital protection to Ian Maatsen, who was never overwhelmed by his defensive duties, despite facing Ousmane Dembele and Achraf Hakimi. Adeyemi was terrific. His long pursuits of Hakimi, one in each half, brought the stadium to its feet each time and earned him a standing ovation when he was substituted late on.

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What an irony. Dembele and Hakimi represent Dortmund’s past. They were part of teams that played with much more style and thrust and yet, back in the Ruhr Valley, they were bettered by a Chelsea loanee and a former wunderkind who, over the last two years, has lost his shine.

With the ball, Dortmund were excellent. That has rarely been the case this season. When the Bundesliga reached its winter break at the end of 2023, the club even refreshed its coaching staff, adding Nuri Sahin to help rewire their attack and Sven Bender to fortify the defence.

Domestically, it’s been slow progress; Dortmund are limping home in the Bundesliga, with many of the same issues that they had in late 2023. They do not score enough goals. They do not create enough chances. But if Sahin has had an influence already, then surely it showed in this game. While Sancho was the star of the evening, that was partly because of the quick, incisive possession that he was supplied with. Dortmund cut their passes up the pitch quickly and vertically, more than once running toward the visiting defence with a man advantage.

Dortmund attacking touches PSG

There was space everywhere and more should have been made of those chances. Not doing so might cost them, but the evening was still overwhelmingly positive. Julian Brandt played with a lightness and originality. Fullkrug was his bullish, forceful best. Marcel Sabitzer was prominent and came extremely close to scoring a second goal. Behind them, Emre Can gave probably his most performance of the season, playing as a No.6, sometimes as a No.8, and buttressing a midfield which has often been fragile and confused.

Dortmund got a lot right. For a team who have often been a tactical muddle this year, it was highly encouraging. Mats Hummels, speaking to DAZN in Germany at full time, described it as a “very mature game from us”

“We helped each other to put in a top performance. It’s not easy to stay calm and make the right decisions in a Champions League semi-final, but we did that well for long stretches.”

They did do well. Dortmund had a different fluency to their game that made them more dangerous, but they played with an intensity and concentration which has been unusual. Terzic’s team do not play like BVB sides of the past. Their style is not so distinct, their flaws are much more obvious. But the success of this European campaign has been in overcoming those limitations and making them matter less than they should.

Whether it be the forward who is not quite modern or quick enough (Fullkrug), the defenders who make too many mistakes (Schlotterbeck and Hummels), or the midfield that does not properly fit together, Dortmund have used the Champions League to rally against the limitations that their weaknesses should impose.

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(Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Newcastle were expected to sweep them aside in the group. Dortmund beat them home and away. AC Milan were Italian champions and had more talent. Dortmund took four points from six, including a win in San Siro. Atletico Madrid were meant to have too much firepower. They also brought a one-goal lead to Germany in the quarter final. They melted in the Westfalenstadion’s white hot heat.

PSG lost on Wednesday night, which is not the same as being beaten. They were made to look porous and vulnerable at times, credit to Dortmund for that, but they purred with enough menace to make the second leg look daunting. Dembele should have scored at least once. During a terrifying burst of second half pressure, Kylian Mbappe hit the inside of the post. Clearly, Gregor Kobel’s goal had a charmed night and nobody was pretending otherwise.

“It was a well-deserved win, a good team performance. We could have scored more goals, but so could they,” said Edin Terzic, sounding a note of caution.

Ousmane Dembele was more bullish.

“At home, it will be different,” he told Canal+.

“With our fans, in our stadium, it will be completely different. I’ve got so much confidence in this team. The chances we created today, we’ll rectify that next week.”

He might well be right. With the weight of attacking talent at Luis Enrique’s disposal, it would be foolish to bet against PSG.

But everybody has been doing exactly that with Dortmund all season. And look where they are now.

(Header photo: Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

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