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Dortmund show hunger for big occasion but must sustain it

September 18, 2019

Barcelona's arrival gave Borussia Dortmund the chance to show themselves to be as good as they think they are. Facing the best certainly brought out the best in BVB on Tuesday but consistency remains the challenge.

UEFA Champions League | Borussia Dortmund - FC Barcelona
Image: Reuters/L. Kuegeler

Just minutes after Marco Reus saw his penalty brilliantly saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Barcelona brought on Lionel Messi. Having missed a glorious chance to take a deserved lead at home, the best player ever came on. Now was the time to find out just how good this Dortmund team was, how mentally strong it could be.

It turns out, on this night against the mighty Barcelona, this Dortmund team showed they can be really good. Reus was undeterred, Sancho still had a spring in his step as the final 20 minutes arrived and Mats Hummels delivered one of the all-time great defensive performances.

The reason their dominance wasn't apparent on the scoresheet was because of a superb and timely performance from ter Stegen and the crossbar that denied Julian Brandt long-range glory. This was not Malaga or Real Madrid, but it was a game and a night to remember for the Ruhr club.

Leading role in the opening act

Against Barcelona, Dortmund were a team of neat one-touch passes, fewer individual errors and discipline. This was a team led by Hummels, held together by Axel Witsel and sparked into life by Jadon Sancho. This Borussia Dortmund played a leading role in the first act of this season's top European drama. Were it not for more fine saves by ter Stegen and a slight lack of composure from Sancho, they might have even led long before Reus missed from the spot.

"We had four or five chances, and if we had taken one of them, we would have won," the Dortmund captain told Sky after the game. 

"We said after the draw that we wanted to qualify for the knockout stages. If we continue to play like we did today then there shouldn't be a problem."

Dortmund may not have won this match, but they did prove they have the bottle for the big games. The elephant in Borussia Dortmund's room has long been mentality. The question has haunted BVB long before last season's failed title challenge. Since the last, sad year of Jürgen Klopp's tenure Dortmund have not been able to shake off the smaller teams, too often succumbing to a change of momentum. The question about the quality of this team is linked to its identity. Ever since Klopp led the team to unexpected glory, the club has been caught between being a genuine challenger to the Bavarian status quo and just another overachieving club.

Noise levels rising

On Tuesday evening, they showed themselves capable of not only competing with the best but controlling them. This was the performance of a club worthy of all the hype, and it seems fans in the Yellow Wall were also keen to raise the bar. Critical of their own support last season, fans have sought an improvement. In an attempt to find it, the central block of ultras in the Yellow Wall plans to spread out rather than congregate in the center, in an attempt to ripple the atmosphere and the sound. Against Barcelona, their support didn't just sound louder, it felt it. Not even the obligatory seats for European nights in Dortmund's famous stand could stop the noise.

“I like these games. Even though we’re lacking a few thousand people [with standing areas seated], there’s still something special about Champions League nights in Dortmund," said midfielder Thomas Delaney afterwards. "It’s pretty easy to get excited when you step on the field.”

If Dortmund can transfer Tuesday's mentality to those games against inferior opponents, when the lights aren't so bright but the points tally the same number, then this team will take an almighty step towards being as good as it thinks it is. Until then, nights like this will be special but isolated moments of brilliance rather than the foundations of glory.