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Aug 26, 2003

Hoist by their own petard?

Ah, those proverbial German grouches... Two weeks ago, Borussia Dortmund's club president Dr Niebaum was talking to the press about his side's upcoming Champions League qualifiers against Bruges. And was he looking forward to those games, was he consumed with happy anticipation? Like hell he was.

'Those two matches', Niebaum grumbled, 'are the most superfluous games of the whole season.' Well, a few hours later his team was being dismantled for 45 minutes, could consider itself lucky to fall behind by no more than two goals, and escaped with a 2-1 defeat only thanks to a halfway decent second half and tiring Belgian legs.

But don't smirk. (Yet.) Niebaum's words were not motivated by arrogance, and he wasn't trying to intimate Dortmund's progress was a foregone conclusion. Instead it was a sigh of frustration.

He was reminding the hacks that Dortmund had only their own nonchalance and/or stupidity to blame for this trip to Belgium.

All the team needed on the last day of the Bundesliga season was a simple win at home against lowly Cottbus, already relegated, to secure second place and automatic qualification for the Champions League.

Borussia jumped to a lead, wasted a plethora of scoring opportunities seldom seen outside a basketball court ­ and then conceded the equaliser. And just like that they were leapfrogged by Stuttgart.

It is tempting to argue that things like that happen in football. Even well-paid superstars led by a bunch of Brazilian wizards and a Czech wunderkind can and will slip up at times.

But the problem with Dortmund is that those slip-ups are the rule, not the exception. On the Saturday just past, the team played like extraterrestrials for 15 minutes, then fell into a collective coma and was beaten away by a Cologne team that had lost seven games (over two seasons) on the trot.

In fact, the Dortmund side that once was lethal away from home because Tomas Rosicky delivered such wonderful passes, which Marcio Amoroso invariably converted with clinical precision, has not won a game away from home since, er... Well, at least not in 2003.

If this very expensive and supremely talented team fails to squeeze past Bruges on Wednesday ­ and if you say they can't you don't know them­, then Dortmund will be a very unpleasant place indeed. For players and maybe, finally, even for managers.

Germany's best player since Franz Beckenbauer, Matthias Sammer, led the club to the 2002 title (which made him the youngest-ever gaffer to win the Bundesliga) and reached the UEFA Cup final the same month.

He was the toast of the town back then, but in retrospect things might have been less impressive than they seemed. Dortmund didn't exactly win the league, it was more that they were the ones who happened to pick up what Leverkusen had thrown away. (And save for two scandalous refereeing decisions down the stretch, they would have failed to do so.)

And while they reached the UEFA Cup final after a fantastic display against Milan (4-0), they had previously exited the Champions League in embarrassing fashion ­ and almost managed to blow their four-goal lead in the second leg in Milan.

Sammer: Leaving Westfalenstadion
Sammer: Leaving Westfalenstadion

Fast forward to the Cottbus match outlined above. The crowd was furious that day, as were the press and the president. All blame was put at the players' feet, who dominated the match but just couldn't make the ball cross the line.

That's because it's a no-no at Dortmund to criticise Sammer, who as a player led the club to the 1997 Champions League title. It's true, he didn't lobby for the manager's post but was begged to take over by all and sundry until he relented. But that doesn't mean you're not allowed to second-guess how he goes about his job.

I was there that day Dortmund only drew with Cottbus, and I was peeved, like everybody at the ground, but not because of what happened on the pitch. The team didn't play well, that's true, but they were the better side and they clearly gave their all. What annoyed me was that it should never have come to this.

Dortmund had their two last away matches that season at 1860 Munich and Kaiserslautern. A win in either of those games would have been enough to render the Cottbus match almost irrelevant, yet the side was obviously much too smart for a simple solution like that.

They played for a point twice and got two scoreless draws, clearly with an eye towards that final, easy game against poor Cottbus. Now you can smirk.

The problem is that Sammer expressed anger after those draws, while I suspect they were exactly what he had in mind. If there's one team in the Bundesliga that has a collective natural instinct to move forward, it's Dortmund.

They even did that, famously, against Real Madrid in last season's Champions League ­ when they were 1-0 up with one minute to go. (Of course they paid for it.)

Amoroso: Calf injury.
Amoroso: Calf injury.

I cannot believe that it wasn't Sammer who told his players to go for a draw in Kaiserslautern and at 1860; not when he blew his lid two years ago after Dortmund had lost to Bayern mainly because Amoroso lost the ball trying to nutmeg an opponent; not when many journalists claim he has told playmaker Rosicky to not use the outside of his foot so often.

I'm not saying Sammer's not a good manager. I simply suspect he coaches the wrong team. Lambasting Amoroso for a nutmeg and Rosicky for using the outside of the foot is like telling Ryan Giggs to not take on players.

Dortmund all too often look like a team that may have a gameplan, yet one they don't really understand. If they can't overcome this dilemma (yet again) by sheer talent on Wednesday, it will no longer be enough for Sammer to rant and rave when he's asked a simple question.


  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, published by WSC Books, is available through Sportsbooksdirect.

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