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FEATURE | The 110 seconds that evaporated Borussia Dortmund’s title bid

In 110 seconds, it was over. 2-1 down to Revierderby rivals Schalke, Marco Reus’ mistimed lunge on Suat Serdar had Borussia Dortmund a man down. From the free kick, Daniel Caligiuri found the top corner before Marius Wolf followed Reus down the tunnel soon after. Wolf’s studs connecting with Serdar’s ankle as Schalke countered. In just over 110 seconds with the ball in play, Dortmund had lost two men and fell two behind in a game they had to win. Their title bid had evaporated.

An hour earlier anything but a Dortmund win seemed unimaginable. With 42 points between the teams at the start of play and Schalke yet to win from behind this season as they struggle against relegation, Jadon Sancho’s defence-bypassing visionary flick for Mario Götze’s headed 14th minute opener seemed to signal the demolition Schalke fans head feared. However, four minutes later Schalke were level.

Guido Burgstaller’s blocked shot was adjudged to have been handled at point blank range by Julian Weigl after a length VAR delay. Caligiuri converted calmly in front of the Yellow Wall. Although referee Felix Zwayer later rightly insisted he applied the handball rule, as it currently stands, correctly, Lucien Favre described the decision as “the biggest scandal in years! Do you want the players to cut off their arms?” the Swiss coach fumed, “I was a player for 15 years and I’ve been coaching for a long time, but that has nothing to do with football.” Schalke coach Huub Stevens seemed to agree, describing the decision as “a pity.”

By the half hour, Schalke were ahead via Salif Sane’s largely unchecked header. Then, after half time, came the Dortmund collapse. Reus, although seemingly little malice, rightly received the first red card of his career with a tackle from behind on Serdar. The German conceded afterwards that he was “a step too late,” with his challenge on the Schalke midfielder, “I wanted to get the ball, he made a quick move and I hit him on the achilles tendon,” Reus told Sky, “we do not need to discuss whether it’s a red card.” Dortmund will be without their talisman for the next two games as a result.

To compound Reus’ misery, with just his team’s third shot on target Caligiuri rifled in the resulting kick for 3-1 before Wolf, again bringing down Serdar, was also rightly dismissed; Wolf’s ensuing three game ban ending his season. Dortmund’s nine men did make it 3-2 through Axel Witsel’s volley with five minutes to pay but Breel Embolo emptied the Westfalenstadion and seemed to secure Schalke’s Bundesliga status for another year with an arrowed fourth from the edge of the area a minute later.

‘Triumph and Tragedy’ read the headline in Monday’s issue of Kicker, a game they described as ‘totally crazy’. Farve however was fuming, telling Sky that the penalty decision was “ridiculous” before responding “yes, obviously” when asked if the title race was now over. Dortmund CEO Hans Joachim Watze, while deeming Herr Zwayer’s performance “very unbalanced”, disagreed with his coach. “We only give up when it’s no longer possible,” Watze stated, “it is our obligation to the fans.”

Local paper Ruhr Nachrichten described the game as ‘Christmas and Easter in one day’ for Schalke fans, ‘Schalke win the derby, make a big step forward in the relegation battle and probably thwart BVB’s title bid.’ Stevens meanwhile, who gave his team Monday and Tuesday off as a reward, explained “tactically the team did a great job in implementing what we set out to do. We needed the three points, the fact that we got them here makes it all the more beautiful.”

While on-field Revierderby drama is common, Dortmund surrendered a 4-0 lead to draw this fixture last season, Germany’s premier rivalry was also again tinged by the unsavoury. In celebrating Götze’s goal, Sancho, who’s performance stood out despite the scoreline, was stuck on the forehead by a lighter thrown from the Schalke support. An incident Favre blamed for the conceding of the penalty by insisting the forward was “out of position” as he received treatment. Meanwhile a banner appeared among the travelling fans reading “freedom for Sergej W”, the convicted Dortmund bus bomber, which Real Betis defender Marc Barta, injured in the 2017 incident, described as “unacceptable and sad.”

Problems had also emerged pre-match as some Schalke fans refused to be searched as they entered the away end, reported Ruhr Nachrichten. 13 arresters were also made after the game, the paper continued, following ‘isolated incidents’ between fans which mirrored similar incidents ahead of the previous derby in Gelsenkirchen when a Schalke fan clubhouse was allegedly attacked.

Despite their defeat, and Favre’s pessimism, Dortmund were given something of a reprieve on Sunday afternoon as Bayern could only extend their lead to two points by drawing 1-1 at Nürnburg. However, even if Dortmund don’t overhaul Bayern to win the title and despite being roundly beaten by Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League last 16, Favre’s first season as coach will remain a success. 29 points was the gap to Munich last term and Dortmund only qualifying for the Champions League on goal difference, but Favre’s nuanced, precise coaching has aid the improvement of Sancho, smoothly integrated Witsel and Paco Alcacer (who both have been crucial at times this season) made Dortmund a far more effective, solid and ruthless unit.

Despite the 4-2 scoreline, Schalke’s demise this campaign has been as dramatic Dortmund’s rejuvenation. Saturday’s win was just their second across 15 games in all competitions, losing 12. Positivity generated by last season’s second place finish and the hype surrounding young rookie coach Domenico Tedesco quickly dissipated last Autumn, the club struggling to cope with the summer sales of their influential young German contingent. Midfield lynchpin Leon Goretzka, who joined Bayern, proved irreplaceable while Crystal Palace bound Max Meyer and young defender Thilo Kehrer, now of PSG, have been sorely missed as an inexperienced squad struggled to manage domestic and European commitments.

With relegation a genuine concern Tedesco, who is still contracted to the club until 2022, was removed in March after the 7-0 Champions League loss to Manchester City. Veteran Dutchman Huub Stevens, this being his third spell at Schalke having coached the club to their 1997 UEFA Cup success, was brought in to stabilise their season and avoid relegation. While it’s likely he’ll succeed after Saturday’s win, the gap to the bottom three being six points with three games to play, little has changed.

The 5-2 home drubbing by Hoffenheim last weekend was perhaps their season’s low point while, speaking on German TV, former Liverpool midfielder Dietmar Hamann criticised their celebrations on Saturday. “When I saw Schalke celebrate the derby win, I knew why they’ve got only 30 points this season,” Hamann said. “They should have gone to the fans, thanked them for the support and at the same time apologise for the crap they’ve played for 30 games.”

With Stevens unlikely to continue into next season two candidates emerged as front runners for the role this weekend. Monday’s Kicker reported that the club are keen to appoint new sporting and technical directors too but ‘Schalke’s big problem’ is, they say, that those ‘decisions are bound together.’ The Schalke board’s plan, the magazine reports, is to stabilise the club’s short term and hand experienced Borussia Mönchengladbach coach Dieter Hecking a two-year deal. Hecking’s contract at Gladbach wasn’t renewed to make way for RB Salzburg boss Marco Rose this summer. The 54-year-old would then hand over to a younger coach in a similar mould to Tedesco who ‘does not yet have the level of experience for their current phase,’ kicker says.

Alternatively, the club could risk a more inexperienced appointment sooner. This, say Bild, makes former Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner favourite to replace Stevens. Wagner fits the club’s profile of ‘speaking German, thinking modernly and embodying emotion.’ Bizarrely, some at the club, continue Kicker, have even discussed giving Tedesco a second chance who has received interest from Stuttgart but has a valid contract with Schalke for now.

Despite the triumph and tragedy of the Revierderby, both clubs have work to do before the summer break. With three games to go, a win for Schalke over Augsburg next Sunday would be enough to secure safety; their goal difference being 21 better than 16th placed Stuttgart. At the top, while Dortmund will struggle without Reus for their next two games and with the continued physiological effect of this 4-2 derby disaster plus the 5-0 Bayern thrashing, an unpredictable Bundesliga season continues to give Dortmund hope. With Munich yet to travel to third placed Leipzig before hosting Niko Kovac’s former club Eintracht Frankfurt on the final day, Lucien Favre shouldn’t give up quiet just yet.

By Adam White.

You can read more content from Adam on his blog.

 

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