Dortmund playing for retrieval of their honour
They never raced. Borussia Dortmund chief Aki Watzke pulled out of the truck race last Wednesday against Bayern peer Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, claiming on match days he was too nervous to steer a 440-horsepower tractor truck over a race track in Munich. Things have gone downhill since for Dortmund, who have a chance to turn things around on Tuesday at home in the second leg of their last-16 Champions League tie with Shakhtar Donetsk.
Only a couple of hours ahead of the cup match in Munich, Mats Hummels had to pull out of the match Dortmund supporters were hoping would destroy Bayern's season. While I was busy compiling stats to give Dortmund supporters a bit of hope - and all I found was that the centre-back pairing of Neven Subotic and Felipe Santana had not lost a single match when starting in over 20 months, but had only started three games together in that span - Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp was busy adjusting tactics.
It didn't work. And Dortmund were never in the 1-0 loss. The Arjen Robben goal, scored after some awkward defending by Felipe Santana and Marcel Schmelzer, was enough for Bayern that night and left the Bavarians celebrating in style. Bayern president Uli Hoeness celebrated being back on top of Germany after such a long time. He took it as far as to claim the "German question" was answered and suggested Bayern had won the battle for Bundesliga supremacy.
A day later Klopp urged Hoeness to admit Bayern had been plagiarizing the Dortmund system, only spending way more money. "I got to talking," Klopp later said, but it was too late. Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes had been served the best quotes and replied, which left Watzke, the one who initiated it all with not competing in the truck race, defending Klopp and ultimately raising the question if Bayern were the right club to instruct Dortmund how to behave in defeat.
Watzke must have remembered Bayern skipper Philipp Lahm's words after their cup final defeat in 2012. The German right-back insisted that Bayern had been the better side in their 5-2 loss to Dortmund and did not concede they were the second-best team. That's how answering the German question nearly led to a civil war in the Bundesliga.
Robert Lewandowski was up next. The Pole, all but invisible during the Cup match, had his final match of a three-game Bundesliga ban cancelled by the Federal Court of the German Football Association. But Klopp then had to decide if the want-away Poland international could play against Hannover 96 last weekend.
Not only Hannover general manager Jorg Schmadtke disapproved, but Dortmund fans also had mixed feelings about fielding Lewandowski and leaving Julian Schieber on the bench. Opinions were divided, and Klopp decided to field both players against Hannover 96. Lewandowski played in central midfield, where he had been frequently used during his first year at Borussia, and Schieber played in attack. Even more surprising, however, was the inclusion of local hero Kevin Grosskreutz as right-back. Santana again replaced Hummels.
When the teams finally entered the pitch on Saturday afternoon, it was time for Dortmund fans to look back on an incident in Donetsk. During the Champions League game two weeks ago, the Dortmund fan liaison officer and a Dortmund fan worker had been attacked, with "Dortmund stays right" reportedly being shouted during the latter assault.
The Donetsk incident was not the first one involving far-right activists in Dortmund this season, but it was the first time Dortmund officials had been on the receiving end of violence.
A shocking silence by the team and supporters followed the attacks. Going into the Hannover match, Dortmund's second at home after the visit to Ukraine, German media hit out at the club and fans for keeping quiet in their first home game against Frankfurt.
On Saturday, Dortmund fans acted and showed a number of anti-right banners on their stands. They read: "Wheelies against right" or "Not up for Nazis" and also showed solidarity with the attacked Dortmund officials.
When the match began, it took Dortmund only a couple of minutes to score, and, of course, it was Lewandowski who put the ball away from short distance after a perfect combination between Jakub Blaszczykowski and Grosskreutz. Thirteen minutes later, Lewandowski did it again. Kuba set up Grosskreutz outside the box and Hannover keeper Ron-Robert Zieler was not able to control the ball, and Lewandowski was there to double the score.
When it was all over, Dortmund had beaten Hannover 3-1 after Schieber added the third goal, his first in the Bundesliga in nearly a year and his first for Dortmund. Lewandowski had eight shots at goal, and Hannover 96 only had five. German media then focused on Lewandowski and others looked ahead to the Champions League match against Donetsk. Nobody cared about the brave Dortmund fans, lost in the reality of arriving at the top of German football.
Tuesday night, Dortmund now have to play for the retrieval of their honour, German press agency DPA claimed, also implying that if Dortmund don't qualify for the quarter-finals the season is lost. But Dortmund have no plans to end their Champions League run. "As a kid I dreamt of playing in the Champions League and going far," Mario Gotze told the pre-match press conference on Monday. "It's a fantastic competition."
General manager Michael Zorc explained: "It is more fun actually playing those games then watching them from the sofa. That's why we want to stay in that competition for as long as possible."
Following the 2-2 draw in Donetsk die Schwatzgelben go into the game against Shakhtar Donetsk as favourites. "Maybe we can surprise them by showing more than we did at Bayern. We surely have to do so to go through," Klopp said.
The good news for Dortmund is that Aki Watzke will not need to cancel a truck race and even better news will be able to see Mats Hummels back on the pitch. However, Hummels was sent home on Monday and whether the German international will be fit was still up in the air. But with or without Hummels, Borussia will need to show they have learned how to handle the day-to-day pressure of a club aiming high.