The Bundesliga title race is approaching its conclusion, and with Bayern Munich seemingly running away with the trophy, all Borussia Dortmund can do is keep up the pressure.
Matchday 30 saw three title challengers drop points: Borussia Mönchengladbach fell narrowly to Freiburg, RB Leipzig conceded a last-minute equaliser against bottom side Paderborn and Bayer Leverkusen were thrashed at the hands of Bayern themselves. If Dortmund followed suit, Hans-Dieter Flick’s side could seal the title next weekend.
The pressure has been on Dortmund all season, especially since they missed their chance to close the gap to just one point in Der Klassiker last month. Lucien Favre’s side hosted a high-flying Hertha Berlin on Saturday, with the visitors from the capital starting to knock on the door of the Europa League spots.
As the case has been all season, Dortmund took time to settle into the game. The opening half-hour is usually spent easing into it, finding their feet and waiting to pounce on a chance. That was the case at the Signal Iduna Park, with one notable difference – no goals to cap it off.
They should’ve gone ahead in the first half, but Jadon Sancho’s clever movement was thwarted when the ball gracefully rolled into the arms of goalkeeper Rune Jarstein. It was the closest BVB came to taking the lead, going into the break all square.
There was no real shift in the second half, but any improvements were reflected minutes before the hour mark. Jadon Sancho lofted the ball into the box, up onto the head of Julian Brandt. The German found his countryman Emre Can, who was on hand to strike the ball smoothly yet precisely into the bottom corner.
1-0 Dortmund, the door was finally open. Except, erm, they didn't come through it.
Dortmund kept in control of the game, but there was no sign of repeating their six-goal showing from last week. Sancho could’ve had another hat-trick, but missed two big chances in front of a ghostly Yellow Wall. One shot was put a way wide of the goal, while Jarstein saved well from his other big opportunity.
The Schwarzgelben did see out the win, but in far from convincing fashion. Hertha didn’t play well, but would’ve snatched something had the hosts not been as organised and disciplined at the back. Can played a crucial role in that, coming into the heart of defence for the absent Mats Hummels and slipping nicely into the back three.
They did defend well, proven by the clean sheet. But it was a completely different story at the other end.
Something was missing for Dortmund. Whether it was the absence of 80,000 adoring BVB fans, no in-form talisman Erling Haaland, the lack of a suspended Hummels or even their injured captain Marco Reus, something wasn’t right.
Dortmund didn’t have the same ruthlessness, urgency or determination that we’ve seen this season. They didn’t seem themselves against Hertha, and looked uneasy on their home turf. It echoed the first-half performance against Paderborn, where they missed half a dozen chances before breaking the deadlock. Even signs of the Bayern defeat were showing, where Dortmund simply didn’t have the cutting edge in front of goal.
The three points are what matter at the end of the day, but when the performance isn’t there questions have to be asked. It wasn’t dire – after all, they won the game – but it certainly wasn’t vintage Dortmund. It wasn’t the Dortmund side we’ve seen play thrilling football this season, blowing opponents away with stunning attacking play.
What is hard to understand is how it has happened. They have had some great performances especially recently, despite months out of action.
Take the 4-0 win over Schalke, the first game after football’s three-month absence. They were flawless, hungry for the three points and playing beautiful football resulting in four fantastic goals. It was one of their most complete performances of the season, and one of their best.
Just three weeks after the Revierderby romping, Dortmund look different. Not the same will or hunger to go all out, thrash the visitors and snatch the three points. Something wasn’t and isn’t right for Favre’s side.
Perhaps it is the effect of the Geisterspiele coming through. Maybe Haaland’s absence is a tough loss to take. Or maybe there’s a sense of submission in the title race.
Dortmund have won both games since losing to Bayern, but the damage done was costly. Instead of moving within one point of the top, Die Roten moved a significant seven points clear, a gap which remains today.
BVB, on the other hand, might have six points out of six since, but have looked unlike themselves for the majority of both games. Bayern need just two more wins to win their eighth consecutive title, whereas Dortmund’s eight-year Meisterschaft wait looks likely to go on. They need to win all four remaining games, and hope for a catastrophic Bayern slip-up to change that.
Favre’s squad came away with the win, but not in routine fashion. It wasn’t ruthless, it wasn’t pretty, and it was far from convincing, but the title race isn’t mathematically over. While there may be a glimmer of hope left, the Schwarzgelben’s engine is running out, and the Bundesliga shield is drifting away as we speak.
Have Dortmund lost their spark? Possibly.