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May 25, 2013

Dortmund lose, but gain friends

For 60 minutes, they looked like a team to make the jaded fall back in love with football. But love can be a losing game. Borussia Dortmund's pursuit ended in failure. Bayern, the Champions League's wealthier suitor, had broken their hearts. The losers will have to settle for making friends, and they will have done so across the world.

The neon Dortmund shirts were unmissable in the streets of London, their songs always ear-bleedingly audible. Even an hour before kickoff, the Dortmund fans were drowning out their Bayern counterparts. All those in red could do was whistle back. The Westfalenstadion's Die Sudtribune had a new home in Wembley's East Stand.

As ever, Jurgen Klopp's team played with the accelerator on and the choke fully out. They went for it straight from the off. Wembley would be no place for a change of approach. Bayern were pinned back for the first half hour and were never afforded a moment's comfort.

Robert Lewandowski led the pressing from the front, harrying Dante and Jerome Boateng and always chasing down back passes to Manuel Neuer. When those in red were in possession, they were swarmed upon. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez struggled to assume midfield control.

Both Lewandowksi and Jakub Blaszczykowski went close, with Neuer producing fines saves to stop them. Marco Reus, too, powered through on a couple of occasions.

Lewandowski enters the transfer window in the most-wanted category. His power and touch are the reasons why Bayern, even with the goal power that Mario Mandzukic or Gomez might offer, want him badly. The Pole's ability to get in to decent positions is borne of his physical attributes. He has a vital facet that many modern strikers do not: He is not afraid to miss, because he always backs himself to get in another position to score. Irony dictates that Mandzukic grabbed Bayern's first while Lewandowski failed in his quest for a goal.

Eventually, Dortmund's impetuosity cost them. Transitions at warp speed yield frequent mistakes. Sometimes, the back passes to Roman Weidenfeller raised the hackles, and the desire to keep the ball coming back at Bayern led to increasing looseness. Mats Hummels' charges into enemy territory left gaps, while Ilkay Gundogan's deep-lying pirouettes and passes always bore an element of risk.

Once a yellow storm had been ridden out, Mandzukic's header from Franck Ribery's cross that was palmed on to the bar by Weidenfeller and Martinez's free header from the corner indicated a vulnerability that Bayern could target.

Chances soon arrived in plentiful supply. Arjen Robben's choking-on-the-big-occasion status looked like it was being written in the statute books as he was twice denied when clean through. Robben, of all people, can offer sympathy to Dortmund's players for losing out on this big occasion.

Mistakes that saw defenders too drawn to the ball led to both Bayern goals, and the coolness showed by Gundogan in converting Dortmund's penalty came to naught. What had got Die Schwarzgelben so far ended up costing them.

"At one point, I thought the match was so open that we could have won it," Klopp said.

A helter-skelter strategy requires everyone to buy into Klopp's philosophy, which has returned the club to the type of occasion that looked beyond it when it was in the depths. Dortmund players are hot properties almost to a man. That might serve as comfort. Even Bayern, the Bundesliga's record breakers and now European champions, want them.

Klopp, the previously chilled-out entertainer, looked like a man weighed down by destiny. In the tunnel before kickoff, it was Jupp Heynckes cracking the jokes. As Klopp took to his dugout, he puffed out his cheeks in a vain attempt to banish his nerves. A wan smile was exchanged with the fourth official.

His players' mistakes were soon being cursed to the rafters. High points like his keeper's fine set of first-half saves and Neven Subotic's incredible clearance of Thomas Muller's goal-bound shot were celebrated with leaps into the air. Such excitability can be draining. When Robben scored, it was clear Klopp's moment had gone. There was nothing more to give. It had already all been risked.

The Champions League has been the target from August. A Dortmund squad that barely stretched beyond a first XI failed terribly in Europe last year when trying to fight on two fronts. The hipsters' choice flopped badly, but now everyone knows about them. The trendsetters who followed the team when it was Lucas Barrios, not Lewandowski, scoring the goals almost had their moment.

The fear is of a final fling, where defeat precedes a team's breaking up. Flavours of the moment get picked off by richer clubs. It is in the economic DNA of European football, going back to when Raymond Kopa was poached by Real Madrid from Stade de Reims after the first European Cup final in 1956.

Ajax, in the 1970s and 1990s, were asset-stripped by Spain and Italy's wealth. The same happened to Red Star Belgrade in the early 1990s. More recently, FC Porto were mined for both coach and players, as were Dortmund after they became European champions in 1996-97.

Despite being the best-supported team in Europe in terms of average attendance, the same fate beckons for this particular Dortmund golden generation.

"We must buy some players, because some teams want our players," Klopp admitted, targeting Berlin in 2015 as perhaps his team's next Champions League final.

There was an air of finality in his players' slow walk to their supporters, first clapping and then standing with arms around each other. They were greeted by a loud burst of singing to show that they remain heroes on the Ruhr.

The Klopp smile, which had been ever-present in the long buildup to Wembley, was gone, his face stony with sorrow before he eventually righted himself with a shrug.

"I need a moment to feel proud again, but I am sure it is living within me," he said. "At the moment, it is the disappointment that hurts."

There will be plenty to sympathise with him. Klopp and his team went down while winning respect. They played a full role in a truly compelling final.

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