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Disjointed Dortmund ride their luck in Russia to top group

December 8, 2020

Borussia Dortmund were not at their best but sealed their path in the Champions League as group winners. Axel Witsel was the matchwinner on a night when Youssoufa Moukoko became the competition's youngest ever player.

Champions League Gruppe F l Zenit Saint Petersburg vs Borussia Dortmund 1:2 Jubel
Image: Anton Vaganov/Reuters

Zenit 1-2 Borussia Dortmund, Saint-Petersburg Stadium
(Driussi 16' — Piszczek 68', Witsel 78')

On their day, Dortmund can give any team in Europe a run for their money — this was not one of those days.

It’s striking the extent to which Dortmund have come to rely on their 20-year-old goal machine Erling Haaland, who in a little under a year has established himself as one of the best goalscorers in the world. Haaland has been absent through injury for the past three games, and this was the first of those games where they’ve mustered a win.

It wasn’t pretty though. Tuesday’s night trip to Russia looked like a formality against a team rock bottom of Group B and with just one point to their names. Even without Haaland and a handful of other injured regular starters, Dortmund should have had enough to make relatively light work of Zenit. In the end, the win was decided by a scuffed pea-roller by Axel Witsel, whose muted celebrations against his former club was symbolic of a muted performance by the Germans, and Lazio's failure to beat Club Brugge in Rome.

Jude Bellingham, who has grown in stature throughout Dortmund’s Champions League campaign, was Dortmund’s chief goal threat as the Bundesliga club looked to restore parity following Sebastian Driussi’s deflected early strike for Zenit. The fact that midfielder Bellingham, whose free header late in the first half came off his shoulder and went over the top, was Dortmund’s most dangerous player told its own story.

Unlikely heroes

Zenit possess some attacking quality in the shape of former Barcelona forward Malcom, but besides the Brazilian, their attack is rather blunt. Against greater attacking quality, Dortmund wouldn’t have come out of this with all the points. But Lucien Favre’s side kept probing, and the introduction of Gio Reyna changed the flow of the game.

Reyna in particular injected some ingenuity and guile to Dortmund’s attacks as they started to exploit gaps in Zenit’s defense, but it was veteran right-back Lukas Piszczek who poked the ball in from close-range after Mats Hummels’ shot was parried by Zenit keeper Mikhail Kerzhakov. Dortmund finally had Zenit where they wanted them and finally led the game with 12 minutes to go, when a speculative shot from Axel Witsel bumped and bobbled its way into the net.

Dortmund’s young striker Youssoufa Moukoko broke yet more records, coming off the bench to become the youngest player in Champions League history at just 16 years and 18 days, beating the 1994 record set by then Anderlecht left-back Celestine Babayaro. Moukoko is yet to score a senior goal for Dortmund, but when he does it won’t be a moment too soon for a team whose reliance on Haaland is clear.