Borussia Dortmund’s Sabitzer sinks Atlético Madrid in seesaw thriller

Estimated read time 4 min read

Another raw and savage night of Champions League football at the Westfalen: the colours vivid, the sounds ear-shattering, the defences in utter disarray. And yet even as an elated Borussia Dortmund toasted this remarkable victory with the Yellow Wall, there remained the eternal question of whether they are ever going to allow us to take them seriously. Whether they will ever escape this riotously entertaining cycle of boom and bust. What kind of resistance they can offer against a Paris Saint-Germain side who have flaws of their own, to be sure, but do not struggle to punish porous, fidgety defences.

It was a flawed and chaotic tie, a tie that felt like a whole psychodrama in its own right, a tie Dortmund effectively lost twice and then won twice. Late goals from Niclas Füllkrug and Marcel Sabitzer secured a first semi-final since 2013, and while Atlético admirably fought back early in the second half, in hindsight it felt like the last stand of a stumbling and broken team, a fibreglass facsimile of the battleships Diego Simeone used to produce.

Of course Atléti fans will defend Simeone to the death, bemoan the hollowing out of the title-winning side, the underinvestment and the overreliance on players whose best years were half a decade ago. “This hurts, we are angry, but when you don’t take your chances this happens,” Koke said afterwards. But it is the basics that are deserting them here, the meat and cheese of clearing lines, winning battles, tracking runners. This is Simeone’s job, even if it is not his entirely. But these days Atlético seem to crumble like this about half a dozen times a season.

Take the winning goal by way of example, a simple clipped diagonal ball that Julian Brandt was allowed to control inside the area, which Füllkrug was allowed to follow up, from which Sabitzer was allowed the room to shoot. Atlético never used to concede goals like this. And if they arrived with hopes of sitting tight on their 2-1 lead from the first leg, it was a delusion shattered within minutes of the start.

Niclas Füllkrug levels the aggregate score at 4-4.View image in fullscreen

Sabitzer was key to the chaos. Indeed a cursory glance at his CV – Dortmund, two Red Bull clubs, Manchester United – reveals a player who has basically earned a PhD in chaos, a central midfielder who actually does very few of the things you would expect from a central midfielder. He only completed 17 passes all night. He did not attempt a tackle or win a header. But somehow he was still everywhere: aggressively pressing the goalkeeper, roaming left and right, sniffing out the space, a kind of midfielder without portfolio.

It was a binary perfectly illustrated within the opening minutes. First Sabitzer ghosted into the box to meet Karim Adeyemi’s cross, only to be denied from six yards by a miraculous block from César Azpilicueta. But with Sabitzer wandering, Dortmund were essentially a 4-1-5, Emre Can patrolling the midfield on his own, and immediately afterwards Álvaro Morata missed a golden one-on-one after dribbling half the length of the field. On the touchline Simeone looked genuinely pained, although not altogether surprised.

As half-time approached, Dortmund seized the initiative. Brandt squeezed the ball past Jan Oblak after a gorgeous diagonal from Mats Hummels, before the marauding Ian Maatsen gave Koke the slip and slammed in powerfully from a tight angle. Simeone responded with a triple substitution at the break: not so much a tactical shift as a full-blown tantrum.

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Remarkably, it worked. Rodrigo Riquelme on the left immediately injected a little more energy and flair than Azpilicueta, Ángel Correa looked more lively and dangerous than Morata, and as ever Dortmund’s frailties were never too far from the surface. Hummels diverted Mario Hermoso’s header into his own net on 49 minutes, and by the time Correa forced the ball home after a goalmouth scramble, Simeone was in full pantomime mode: raging at the fates, lying prone on the turf, one of those spellbinding performances when he is either being possessed by God or the devil, but you are not quite sure which.

The game was formless and void, darkness moving over the surface of the watery deep, but the spirit of Sabitzer was moving across the water. First Füllkrug glanced in his speculative cross from the left. Next Atlético failed to clear their lines, and Sabitzer’s shot was experimental, wild, unrefined and yet going nowhere but the bottom corner. As the minutes leaked away Atlético thrashed and writhed, bent themselves into new and unfamiliar shapes. But the deed was done.


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