DORTMUND, Germany — The great allure of sports in general is that you never know what will happen next. Very few expected the New England Patriots to come back from a 28-3 deficit against the Atlanta Falcons in the last Super Bowl, nor would people have pointed to Benevento goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli to be the bearer of his club’s first-ever Serie A point with a stoppage-time equaliser, as it happened last Sunday.
When it comes to UEFA Champions League group stages, shocking outcomes are a rarity, though. That Borussia Dortmund may finish third, paired together with Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur in a strong Group H, was never going to be an upset, although the Black and Yellows topped a group that featured Los Blancos in 2016-17.
Though it was unforeseeable that entering matchday six of the group stages, Peter Bozs’s team would have to fear for a third-place finish as they are level on points with Cypriot minnows APOEL.
In August, ESPN FC’s Nick Miller wrote in his initial take after the Group draw: “Dortmund’s success might depend on how Bosz, who has no Champions League experience, adapts to the competition.”
Three losses and two draws later, that question has already been answered: Not so well.
Given that Dortmund lost a significant player in Ousmane Dembele but otherwise kept their squad together, a lot was always going depend on how Thomas Tuchel’s successor would perform in Europe.
In the first two matches against their English and Spanish competitors, the Westphalians ran into the knife, fielding a very high line without the lack of cover. A rookie mistake that is usually punished ruthlessly in the Champions League.
Also, nobody could foresee that Dortmund would arrive at the Bernabeu at the heel of only one win in their last 11 matches across all competition — which came against a third-division outfit in Magdeburg.
When Dortmund lost 3-1 at home to Real in late September, they were still topping the Bundesliga. Since then the German club have been in freefall and are yet to find a solution to their big defensive issues.
“I think that the match against Leverkusen was a better performance over 90 minutes than in the games before,” Neven Subotic told his news conference on Tuesday, adding: “It was a step into the right direction.”
A statement that speaks volumes about how far the Black and Yellows are away from righting the ship, as they were comprehensively outplayed by Leverkusen last Saturday until the hosts had a player sent off. Only then, Dortmund managed to gain control and eventually equalise to settle for a 1-1 draw.
“During such a tough phase, we mustn’t just celebrate the big wins but take every point that we can get. The draw in Leverkusen was an important point,” Subotic added.
In Dortmund, it looks as though the fear of losing has become greater than the desire to win. Bosz’s side were sporting 89 percent possession in the second half against a decimated Leverkusen team. Team captain Marcel Schmelzer told ESPN FC after the game that it was a priority for them to be patient and not give the ball away cheaply against Leverkusen’s counter-attacking threat.
In the current situation, that may not have been the worst idea, as losing to Leverkusen may have inflicted even more damage on an already banged-up confidence.
“If possible we want to get a result here tomorrow,” Bosz said on Tuesday, “It’s not only about that though but also about gaining confidence.”
The game against Real Madrid will be the last UCL match for Dortmund in this season. Whether they get to return Europe’s most sought-after international competition come next season still remains to be seen as they are currently only in sixth place, two points off a coveted top-four spot in the Bundesliga.
During such a negative spell, maybe a trip to the Bernabeu comes at the right time. Not because Dortmund have turned into sudden favourites with the hosts struggling themselves domestically and Bosz’s team having nothing left to play for. No, Real Madrid are still, and always will be, favourites on home turf in a Champions League tie.
Though the fine tunes of the Champions League anthem that send chills down every professional football player may serve as a reminder to Dortmund players what they are playing for when battling in the Bundesliga. A match at the Bernabeu in the Champions League surely must fill a player with pride and make him reflect on what he has achieved in his career.
Either way, Dortmund are in dire need of some positive motivation next to their longing to stop the extensive winless streak of seven.
For Bosz it will be a tricky task to choose between his best chances to gain some “confidence” against Real and resting key players for a more important league fixture on Saturday.
The 54-year-old finds himself with fewer options after midfielder Gonzalo Castro and Maximilian Philipp picked up long-term injuries last Saturday, joining Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, Sebastian Rode, Lukasz Piszczek, Erik Durm and Jacob Bruun Larsen in the sickbay. With right-back Jeremy Toljan being suspended after picking up his third yellow card in the 2-1 loss against Tottenham a fortnight ago, Dortmund are likely to once again field a 3-4-3 system.
It remains to be seen whether that means a chance for centre-backs Marc Bartra and Omer Toprak to prove themselves again after they had lost the confidence of their coach, or if Bosz opts for some continuity in the backline, fielding once again Subotic between Marcel Schmelzer and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. The first 40 minutes of the draw in Leverkusen have shown that Bosz is yet to find the formula for defensive stability. Will he find it at the Bernabeu?
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.