Borussia Dortmund currently lead the Bundesliga by no fewer than 12 points and it appears the club, led by coach Jurgen Klopp, are destined for a return to Europe's elite, 14 years after the Westphalian side won the Champions League with a 3-1 victory over Juventus.
May 28, 1997. Munich's Olympiastadion. The Old Lady from Italy is finally beaten as a young man from Germany scores just 16 seconds after his arrival on the pitch. As commentator Marcel Reif puts it: "The Brothers Grimm are turning in their grave - these are incredible stories!"
As fairytales go, Borussia Dortmund's unexpected victory over Juventus was not exactly a genuine Cinderella story, but nevertheless some of its key protagonists did go on to assume legendary form. After all, it was, and remains, a triumph that surprised Europe.
It is a story that has humble beginnings. The inspiration behind Dortmund's victory arrived at the club in 1991 to little fanfare, despite having secured back-to-back titles with Swiss club Grasshopper Zurich. His name was Ottmar Hitzfeld, and if he was a relative unknown at the time, he would go on to address that comprehensively, etching his name into football's history books in 2001 when emulating Ernst Happel and becoming only the second coach to win the European Cup with two different teams. Before his triumph at Bayern Munich, though, his task was restoring Dortmund as a force to be reckoned with.
As the first German side to win a European trophy when defeating Liverpool in the Cup Winners' Cup final of 1966, Die Schwarzgelben (the Black-Yellows) already possessed a proud European legacy. Hitzfeld would embellish it significantly, even if he suffered initial disappointment in 1993 when losing 6-1 across two legs of the UEFA Cup final. Dortmund's opponents were a Juventus side that included Jurgen Kohler, Julio Cesar and Andreas Moller, and within two years all three men had been lured from Turin to Westphalia.
They helped form the core of a Dortmund side that, under Hitzfeld's watchful eye, would win back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 1995 and 1996. However, the driving force at the heart of the club's success was Matthias Sammer, brought to the club from Inter in 1993. The last of the great sweepers, the man with the instantly recognisable shock of red hair was key to Hitzfeld's approach and in 1996 was reaching his prime. Along with Dortmund team-mates Moller, Kohler, Stefan Reuter and Steffen Freund, he was a member of the Germany squad that triumphed at Euro '96 and was awarded the Ballon d'Or in the same year.
His versatility, reading of the game and composure made him a vital asset. In his own words: "I see myself as a midfielder but I have no problems playing at the back. Either behind the line of defenders, among them, or in front, it makes no difference to me." According to Paul Lambert - who, along with another former Juve star in Paulo Sousa, would join Dortmund in the summer of 1996 - Sammer was a sensation in any position. "I'm a little young to remember Beckenbauer," he told The Guardian in 1997, "but everybody in Germany assures me Sammer is the best libero since the great man. I'm not surprised. Pound for pound the best player in Europe."
It was high praise indeed from the midfielder, who had become one of the early beneficiaries of the Bosman Rule to join Dortmund on a free transfer from Motherwell. Lambert's description of another team-mate, the developing talent Lars Ricken, was similarly perceptive: "For a youngster, he is unbelievably composed in front of goal." Those words would prove prophetic.
This talented Dortmund collective, led in attack by Karl-Heinz Riedle and Stephane Chapuisat, embarked on an impressive run of form in their Champions League campaign in the 1996-97 season, finishing second to Atletico Madrid on goal difference in the group stage before sweeping past Auxerre 4-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals, with midfielder Ricken, still just 20, scoring the only goal of the game in the second leg in France. In the semi-final against Manchester United, Ricken replicated the feat, silencing Old Trafford as Dortmund completed a 2-0 aggregate win against Alex Ferguson's side.
However, in the final they ran into Juve - their vanquishers in 1993, a team that beat them into second place in the group stage of the 1995-96 season, and a squad that represented European royalty. In the Bianconeri's centenary season, coach Marcello Lippi had already secured the European Super Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and a 24th Serie A title as Juventus continued a golden period in their history. The tie with Dortmund was the second of three consecutive appearances in the Champions League final, following a win over Ajax the previous year, while the Turin club also took the Scudetto in 1995, 1997 and 1998. It was clear Juve were the pre-eminent force in Italian and European football.
Though doping allegations would later cast a dark pall over this juncture of the club's history - and result in the prosecution and subsequent acquittal of team doctor Riccardo Agricola, who, according to one advisor of Turin magistrate Raffaele Guariniello, had helped ensure "the club was equipped like a small hospital" - Juve had developed a fearsome reputation among their contemporaries.
Zinedine Zidane had joined the club from Bordeaux for £3 million in the summer of 1996 and, while his initial impact was depicted in unflattering contrast to the unimpeachable reputation enjoyed by his compatriot Michel Platini among Juve fans, by May 28 he had become a key member of a midfield that also included Didier Deschamps, Angelo Di Livio and Vladimir Jugovic. With the diverse talents of Alessandro Del Piero, Alen Boksic and Christian Vieiri in attack, and Ciro Ferrara and Paolo Montero in defence, it was no surprise that Frank Rijkaard, reacting to Ajax's 6-2 aggregate defeat at the semi-final stage, described the Italians as "a team from another planet". Certainly Juve's celestial reputation left the German press starry-eyed, with one publication predicting a "consolation march" rather than a "march of glory".
Ahead of the game in Munich's Olympiastadion, Dortmund were also weakened by the absence of former Juve defender Julio Cesar, while the great Sammer was short of match practice. But they had some form of divine inspiration on their side. As Riedle revealed after the game: "I had a dream last night and, in it, I scored one goal with my left foot and one with a header." Despite being outplayed in the first half hour, Riedle's prophecy came true as the striker poached two goals in five minutes, first with his left foot as he took a cross from Lambert on his chest before beating Angelo Peruzzi, and second with his head as he rose to meet a corner from Moller. As Hitzfeld celebrated in a raincoat reminiscent of Lieutenant Columbo's, Lippi was reduced to attempting to deduce what had happened to his team.
Zidane struck the post and Vieri saw an effort turned onto the crossbar, but Juve responded when Del Piero produced a masterful flick from Boksic's cross to make it 2-1. Surely the momentum was now with the reigning champions? If it was, Hitzfeld promptly snatched it back with a brilliant substitution after 70 minutes as Chapuisat was replaced by Ricken. The academy graduate, who made such an impact in the quarter-final and semi-final, would later become a byword for unfulfilled potential, testing the patience of managers and supporters. In Munich, though, he delivered immediately.
Strolling onto the pitch, he was suddenly set free by a perfect through-ball from Moller and with his first touch of the game executed a stunning lob to send the ball soaring over Peruzzi and into the net, just 16 seconds after his introduction. Dortmund assumed a 3-1 lead, and Juventus had been defeated.
Ricken, just like Riedle, revealed he too had experienced a premonition of sorts. "When I was sitting on the bench, I saw that Angelo Perruzzi had been standing too far out of his goal," Ricken revealed. "I then said to myself that the first ball which comes to me, I will shoot it blindly towards goal. After my substitution, I didn't have to shoot blindly on goal - I immediately spotted that Peruzzi was far too far out of his goal."
Meanwhile, following the final whistle, Lippi said: "We're not unbeatable. We have never said we were." But plenty thought they were before Dortmund's relative rags to riches tale was finished being told.
What happened next? Hitzfeld was lured to Bayern in 1998 and led a second Bundesliga side to European glory three years later. While Riedle moved on to Liverpool and then Fulham, Ricken was told by Johan Cruyff he could "play a big role in the Italian or Spanish league in the years to come" but never fulfilled his potential and remained with Dortmund until his retirement in February 2009. Borussia Dortmund floated on the stock exchange in 2000 and, although they secured another Bundesliga title in dramatic circumstances in 2002, with Sammer as head coach, they later became mired in financial problems before enjoying a renaissance in the 2010-11 campaign.