A classy strike from English teenager Jadon Sancho settled the 177th Revierderby in Borussia Dortmund's favor. The still unbeaten visitors had to overcome adversity against struggling rivals Schalke.
If the cliché is true, if title-winning teams are forged by wins ground out when it’s not quite clicking, then Borussia Dortmund are home and dry.
While the devastating combinations that have marked Dortmund’s campaign to date floundered on a series of heavy touches and missed connections, their capacity for the clinical and the prodigious class and composure of Jadon Sancho saw them clear another hurdle on the path to a first Bundesliga title since Jürgen Klopp lifted the Meisterschale in 2012.
For the first 15 minutes this looked more like a gentle hop over a puddle than the difficult leap it eventually became. The gap in class early on looked as wide as the 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) between the two stadiums, or the 19-point chasm that separated the sides at the start of play. Thomas Delaney’s free header had given Dortmund an early lead and the visitors’ front three looked rampant, if a touch wasteful.
Tedesco rallies the troops
With a number of Dortmund’s more boisterous fans still banned from this fixture and those in blue and white discouraged by their team's start, the atmosphere in the Veltins Arena was flat. Domenico Tedesco though, was anything but.
The Schalke coach raged against a series of decisions, arms flailing at the injustice of a denied penalty claim and chest pushed proudly out as Schalke won their first corner of the game just before the half-hour mark. The display of defiance and plea for intensity nearly worked, Guido Burgstaller’s effort on the spin was beaten out desperately by Roman Bürki, the noise cranked up a notch.
A few minutes later, Burgstaller limped off, leaving the animated coach with a big decision. But his options were limited. Where his opposite number Lucien Favre could look to Mario Götze or Christian Pulisic Tedesco’s senior strikers are all on the treatment table. Luck, as well as the odds, seemed to be against the Royal Blues.
But Schalke are familiar with being out-gunned. Their second place finish last year came not through free-wheeling, attacking football but thanks to discipline, organization and teamwork.
Even so, when Nabil Bentaleb joined Burgstaller on the substitutes bench before an hour had passed, Schalke had lost their top two Bundesliga scorers and were relying on dynamic but pocket-sized midfielder Weston McKennie to lead the line alongside fullback Hamza Mendyl.
“We needed two center forwards today. After we lost Guido, we wanted to have someone pacey up front," said Tedesco at his post-match press conference. "Hamza Mendyl is our quickest player, who is also very direct, so we decided to put him up front."
For all his pace, 21-year-old Mendyl has never scored a professional goal. McKennie has two. No wonder Tedesco went on to lament that his "biggest problem at the moment is a lack of cutting edge."
Bentaleb’s substitution also meant the departure of Schalke’s penalty taker but when VAR adjudged that Marco Reus had fouled Amine Harit in the area in the 61st minute, Daniel Caligiuri proved an able deputy, joining Delaney in scoring his first of the season.
Touch of class
Suddenly a game that had felt beyond the hosts was alive, and Dortmund knew it. A side that's played with serenity for much of the campaign suddenly lost their cool, with the 17-man pushing and shoving match instigated by Reus and Achraf Hakimi a sign they’d recognized they'd failed to put the derby to bed when they had the chance. It was a reaction to adversity that surely would’ve been familiar to Tedesco.
What's also become distressingly familiar to Tedesco is conceding goals. When Sancho picked up the ball in the 74th minute, there seemed little danger. Seconds later, after a familiar and well-grooved exchange of passes with Reus, a pair of touches to get the ball under control, an opening of the body and a curled finish, Dortmund regained their lead, and confirmed their superiority over their Ruhr rivals.
"That goal was for my grandmother, she passed away recently, it was for my family," said Sancho, who was given a leave of absence to return to London this week. "It was a hard game, a derby, I know what these games are like, I’m from England. We need to keep performing like today and getting three points."
While they certainly need to keep winning, they may well need to produce a little better than this against stronger opponents as the season goes on. While beating Schalke will always be relevant to those in the Ruhr region, Dortmund have far bigger fish to fry.