Dortmund end trophy drought but uncertain and difficult summer ahead
BERLIN -- Borussia Dortmund captain Marcel Schmelzer limped onto the DFB-Pokal winner's podium as the last BVB player. He made his way through his teammates, coach Thomas Tuchel waiting at the back. Dortmund had just beaten Eintracht Frankfurt 2-1 in a match which fittingly summed up BVB's season.
Finally, Schmelzer, off injured with a thigh injury, lifted the cup and brought Dortmund its first trophy in five years, after four straight defeats in cup finals from 2013 through to 2016. Yet, despite the win, BVB are headed towards an uncclear future once again.
On Saturday, Schmelzer was not the only Dortmund player off injured at half-time. Star winger Marco Reus, looking for his first major trophy, also came off at half-time. He had battled through the first half despite picking up a knee injury early on.
"Maybe it's a bit of anterior cruciate ligament. You'll have to ask the doc. It doesn't matter today," Reus said on ARD during the postmatch celebrations.
After Reus sent the ball flying from the left wing to the right wing of the pitch to Lukasz Piszczek after eight minutes, the German international ran into the box to chase a possible second ball. He didn't need to do it, as 20-year-old Ousmane Dembele hit double figures in his debut season with a left-footed shot from a tight angle. The French youngster carried BVB's match for long stretches, creating moments of magic and eating up opponents in the box. He needed to do it. Especially with Dortmunds star Reus unable to go the full 90 minutes.
"Reus received a knock when running into the box," Thomas Tuchel said on his postmatch news conference. With only 12 minutes played both Gonzalo Castro and Christian Pulisic warmed up.
The two midfielders eventually came on at half-time, with the young American especially adding much-needed creativity to Dortmund's dire midfield. "Pulisic is a top player," Frankfurt coach Niko Kovac said after the match. With BVB winning back superiority in the opening minutes of the second half, Pulisic was brought down in the box by Frankfurt keeper Lukas Hradecky after 66 minutes.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who missed three penalties this season, stepped up, converted and did his customary somersault celebration. It was his 40th goal in 46 games this season, and it might have been his last for the club.
Despite a late push for a last-minute goal, Dortmund hung on to the lead. Outside the pitch, the injured players lined up as Frankfurt's Danny Blum swung in one last free kick in search of an equaliser. Marco Reus covered his face with his hands, desperately waiting for the final whistle.
Frankfurt, on the other hand, waited deep and time and time again sent United States international Timothy Chandler down the right wing. The 27-year-old was pressing forward against Dortmund's left-side where Schmelzer was visibly not up to his best after returning from injury. And indeed, it was the American who changed the match when his header after 20 minutes breathed fresh confidence into Frankfurt. Chandler, in the later stages, was replaced by club legend Alex Meier as Die Adler hoped for that one goal to force extra time.
For the last 25 minutes of the first half, Frankfurt were on top of the match, winning crucial midfield battles and threatening Roman Burkis goal. In the 29th minute Frankfurt broke through, Mexican international Marco Fabian outmuscling BVB defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos to steal the ball and Mijat Gacinvoic releasing Ante Rebic to equalise. Dortmund struggling to fight back before the half-time whistle.
Yet, for most parts of the match, Kovac's side operated with long balls. They chased them on the wings, and waited for second balls in midfield. This, against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday night, was nearly enough.
But Dortmund had more individual quality and a change of system at half-time worked wonders. Matthias Ginter, following a shocking performance in holding midfield, was moved back into the back three. Raphael Guerreiro connected with Pulisic down on the left wing. Over on the other wing, Ousmane Dembele continued to deliver his moments of magic. Aubameyang hit the crossbar with a scissor kick. In the end, they reached the finish line.
It was a match that summed up Dortmund's turbulent season. An early lead through one of the youngsters from one of Europe's most exciting projects in attack, followed by a phase of instability caused by a physical opponent upping the ante. An overall insecurity at the back and the absence of midfield creativity making it difficult to keep the other team at bay. With the early lead, they switched off, and waited for Frankfurt to equalize. A recurring theme at Dortmund this season.
"We looked like we had an incredible lot to lose. Frankfurt were really confident, bold," Tuchel said of the first 45 minutes. And indeed, the pressure was entirely on Dortmund.
After four months of chaos at the club which included a bomb attack on the team bus, two other cancelled matches, fan riots leading to partial stadium closure and a showdown between club CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and head coach Tuchel, the cup win offers the club a temporary breathing space before the upcoming talks between the club and their coach.
Tuchel wants to continue his time at Dortmund but due to the recent events at the Westfalenstadion, it is highly unlikely that the coach will add more games to his name at Dortmund. Despite receiving hugs from Dortmund's leadership, the coach stood away from the celebration for large parts. "Right now, I feel empty," he said in the post-match news conference.
Dortmund have won their first trophy since 2012 and finally have ended their curse of losing finals. That accomplishment produced great relief on the players' faces, but they are headed for a difficult and uncertain postseason once again.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.