For the second time in a month, BVB were found wanting when it mattered most. Infuriated by an early decision, Lucien Favre took aim at the referee – and his side lost their heads, writes DW's Matt Pearson.
When things seem to be going against you, the understandable instinct is often to rail against something, anything, external rather than accept culpability in your own downfall. So it was for Lucien Favre on Saturday.
"It's ridiculous. Football is making itself ridiculous," raged the normally measured and mild-mannered Borussia Dortmund head coach after a 4-2 loss to local rivals Schalke that leaves his title hopes hanging by a thread. "What do they want players to do, cut their arms off? The people who invented these (handball) rules, I don't know how they look at themselves in the mirror."
Favre was referring to the decision to award Schalke an 18th minute penalty after the ball struck Julian Weigl on the arm in the box from close range. The call to consult the VAR seemed to surprise everyone. Few Schalke players protested Weigl's block and Schalke's interim boss Huub Stevens – a veteran of 19 Revierderbies – shrugged his shoulders, raised an eyebrow and cracked the wryest of smiles before Daniel Caligiuri rolled in the equalizer from the spot.
Favre's anger may well have been justified in this instance. At any time in football's history before the last 12 months, Weigl's intervention would not have been seen as a handball. But recent tweaks to the law have seen a string of similar incidents punished, notably in the the Champions League knockout stages. It seems likely to be even more common next season.
Promising opening from hosts
It all started so differently. The blue smoke from the away fans' pre-match pyrotechnics settled long before the visiting team at the Westfalenstadion and, as Mario Götze nodded in Jadon Sancho's perceptive cross after 14 minutes, the gap in class and confidence looked as wide as the 42 points that separated the rivals ahead of the game suggested.
But, just as they crumbled in the face of a strutting Bayern Munich side's fast start at the beginning of April, so the penalty decision pushed Favre's men towards a spiral of uncertainty, indecision and self-sabotage that looks certain to cost them their best chance of a title since 2012. And probably their best for some time to come.
"For me, it (the referee's display) has decided the title fight," continued Favre, who watched Marco Reus and Marius Wolf get sent off in a five minute period that also saw Caligiuri fire in a stunning free-kick for Schalke's third.
Reus' tackle was late, a little high and entirely borne of frustration, with Dortmund having let their lead slip through Salif Sane's 28th-minute header. His team just couldn't find any traces of the fluency that showed itself in the opening stages or in their 4-0 demolition of Freiburg last weekend.
The hosts had 81 percent of the ball in the first half and finished the match with 70 pecent possession but young Schalke goalkeeper Alexander Nübel didn't make a save of note between picking Götze's header out of the net and being beaten by Axel Witsel's late back post volley.
Regardless of the legitimacy of the early penalty, Dortmund had 72 minutes to beat a team that's consistently proved themselves to be one of the worst teams in the Bundesliga this season. A team 42 points behind them. A team that's won one league game since mid January.
That they couldn't break down their rivals will presumably be equally troubling to Favre when the dust settles and he may regret not bringing on Paco Alcacer, a consistent game changer, at the break.
Just after Favre did introduce the Spaniard, his plans went up in smoke, as his captain lunged in to a tackle that ended his game and, most likely, his season. The German midfielder's tackle was poorly-timed, studs up and directly in front of the referee. The player later accepted he deserved a straight red that nevertheless came as something of a surprise.
But for Marius Wolf to make a near-identical tackle in a similar position five minutes later was brainless, irresponsible and inexcusable. Both these reckless decisions are as critical in Dortmund's surrendering of the title as an early penalty decision.
For all that it's understandable that Favre's emotions were running high after a game in which Jadon Sancho was struck by a missile thrown from the away end, his words – at least partly – let his side off the hook.
Yes, Dortmund are ahead of where they expected to be and yes, this has been a strong first campaign in charge for Favre, who has generally come across well. But he must surely realize his team have failed to deliver after putting themselves in the box seat. Lashing out at external factors may be comforting but it's futile.