The Champions League semifinals take place next week, and for the first time in a long time the four genuinely top teams in Europe – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – will battle it out for the greatest prize in club football.
Although all four clubs are hugely popular around the world, Dortmund are the preferred winners in the eyes of many this season.
But why is this?
While Barcelona, Madrid and Bayern are all giants of the game, with reputations of egotism and club politics, Dortmund represent a likeable club. That’s not to say they are not a huge club themselves – they have the highest average weekly attendance in Europe – but there is the feel of a club where the fans are the number one priority, and good football is encouraged.
Over the last couple of seasons the side has gained more and more admirers by the game, with an exciting young side led by an exciting young coach.
Jurgen Klopp has been an absolute revelation at Die Borussen since his arrival in 2008. After inheriting a side languishing in mid-table in the Bundesliga he made an immediate impact, leading them to sixth and fifth place in the following two seasons.
The following two campaigns – 2010/11 and 2011/12- saw Klopp guide his young team to successive Bundesliga titles, gaining the highest German points tally of all time in the latter. He also clinched the double in 2012 after an unforgettable 5-2 victory over Bayern in the German Cup final.
His unique personality has made him a star in Germany, and his managerial style and level of success are seeing him linked with moves to Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal.
Although this season has been a disappointing one domestically, with a 20 point deficit to Bayern now impossible to overturn, Dortmund have reached new heights in the Champions League, which was Klopp’s main objective at the start of the season.
They are the only side unbeaten in this season’s competition, and they topped the so-called ‘group of death’, also featuring Madrid, City and Ajax. They defeated both Madrid and City at home, and were denied victory away to both only because of last minute goals.
Speaking of last minute goals, Dortmund’s dramatic quarterfinal victory over Malaga, in which they scored two goals in stoppage time, was slightly lucky but good for the competition. They are a far better side than the Spaniard’s and deserved to go through. It was one of the most dramatic Champions League games for many years.
So what of the players that make up this excellent side?
At an average age of approximately 24, the team is full of energy, technical brilliance and youthful exuberance. It could be argued that their strongest possible starting eleven would contain just one player over 30; goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller.
Much of the side is dominated by a new generation of German stars, including Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan, Mario Gotze and Marco Reus, with a strong Polish influence too.
Weidenfeller is, perhaps, a slight weak-link in the side. The 32-year-old is perfectly solid, but he is nowhere near the level of Iker Casillas, Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer; the best ‘keepers in the world. Something about him doesn’t particularly inspire confidence, and you just hope an error isn’t lurking in their semifinal clash with Madrid.
In central defence, the duo of Mats Hummels and Nevan Subotic are superb. Born just six days apart, and both just 24 still, they are good on the ball and dominant defensively. Hummels, in particular, looks a potentially world-class defender, if he’s not already, and looks set to be a key player in the German national side for many years to come.
Marcel Schmelzer is a strong left-back who is improving by the year. Very good going forward, the 25-year-old is now becoming a fixture in the German national side.
On the other side, Lukasz Piszczek is one of best right-backs in Europe. The Polish star has the marauding style of Dani Alves but also the defensive expertise of Pablo Zabaleta, and a number of Europe’s other top clubs are keeping a close eye on the 27-year-old.
The star of Dortmund’s midfield is Ilkay Gundogan. The 22-year-old is an absolute class act, with the ability to dictate the pace of a game. He has great creativity, an endless work-rate and an eye for goal. Some have been calling for him to replace Bastian Schweinsteiger in the Germany side, which highlights how highly thought of he is.
Gundogan’s partner in midfield is a 50/50 choice between Sven Bender and captain Sebastian Kehl. Both are more defence-minded than Gundogan, but are very effective in sniffing out the danger from opposition attacks. Bender represents the future but Kehl’s experience means that he often plays in the biggest games. Both are equally effective.
This leads us to Dortmund’s magnificent German/Polish front four of Jakub Blaszczykowski, Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Robert Lewandowski. There is not a more vibrant, youthful, talented attacking quartet in European football.
Blaszczykowski, or ‘Kuba’ as he is known, has a brilliant relationship down the right flank with his international teammate Piszczek, much like Gary Neville and David Beckham did at Manchester United in their prime.
Kuba, captain of Poland, is an exciting player, combining technical excellence with lung-busting runs. His goal ratio is very good from his position, and he has found the net 12 times in 27 games so far this season.
Gotze and Reus, who can both either play from the left or behind the striker, are Germany’s two most promising players of their generation. Franz Beckenbauer, Germany’s greatest ever player has said:
“As a classic duo there is nobody better than Gotze and Reus.”
For all Hummels’ leadership, Gundogan’s class and other great youngsters like Tony Kroos, Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil, many feel that they are the true stars who will lead Germany back to the pinnacle of world football.
Gotze is blessed with wonderful natural ability: he can dribble, pass, shoot and score to great effect. Still just 20, there is still a rawness about his game that will slowly disappear over the next few years, but he is undoubtedly one of the top young players in Europe.
Reus, meanwhile, at three years older than Gotze, does look the finished article. The reigning German Footballer of the Year was re-signed by Dortmund last summer for €17 million, and he has been a revelation, scoring 16 goals and creating 13 others.
He has good pace, technique and has the knack of scoring in the big games. He also has the rare ability to get between the lines of the opponents defence and midfield, and he is capable of causing havoc in those areas.
Up front, Lewandowski is one of the most sought-after strikers in Europe. The 24-year-old is the perfect modern forward: he scores frequently, has great pace, works hard and brings others into the game with his hold up play.
The Pole, who has 30 goals in just 41 games this season, scored a sensational goal against Malaga in the last round at a crucial time in the contest. Along with Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani, his whereabouts next season will be the most talked over the summer.
So can Dortmund win the Champions League?
The answer to that is clearly yes, but for all of their undeniable brilliance they are still the outsiders to lift the trophy at Wembley in May.
Their biggest weakness could actually end up being their lack of experience. Against Malaga the side looked nervous, with many of the players still fairly new to such critical games, and with a daunting trip to the Bernabeu looming you wonder how they will fare.
People will argue that they outplayed them in the group stages, which they did, but the semifinals are an altogether different proposition.
When you look at the players they will be up against potentially – Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema – they’ve experienced endless big matches, and that is a huge advantage.
The only other other weakness is possibly a lack of squad depth in key areas. Injuries to Hummels, Reus or Lewandowski would be particularly damaging, with replacements such as Felipe Santana, Kevin Grosskreutz and Julian Schiever all far inferior players.
That said, Klopp’s men have a good chance of seeing off Jose Mourinho’s Madrid side, particularly if they can keep a clean sheet in the first leg at Westfalenstadion.
If they did progress, a declining but Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona or a hugely impressive Bayern Munich team would await in the showcase event at the Wembley Stadium, and Borussia Dortmund would be 90 minutes away from greatness.
If they achieve it, it would be hugely popular with many neutral supporters across the globe, even in England. That says all you need to know about their popularity.