Borussia Dortmund had to beat Sporting Lisbon on match-day 4 of the group stage to be certain of their place in the last-16 of the Champions League and the task appeared rather straight-forward after the German side won 1-2 in Lisbon two weeks earlier.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored in that win but would make life difficult for his manager Thomas Tuchel back in Dortmund. With Marco Reus already missing with a groin injury, Tuchel also had to deal with the absence of Aubameyang who he suddenly dropped moments before kick-off.
Chief executive Joachim Watzke would only offer “internal reasons” as explanation for the mini-suspension amidst a flurry of rumour as questions were inevitably raised over the striker’s relations with his manager after a summer in which he was pursued by Manchester City.
Dortmund had quoted City £65 million for the Gabon international who had scored 39 goals in 46 games in the previous campaign but as he watched on in the November evening, adorned in a black scarf and fedora hat, as Lisbon were narrowly seen off by an early goal from Adrian Ramos, potential suitors would have been sensing a possible January exit at a knock-down price.
Four months on and Aubameyang’s value has sky-rocketed again. His hat-trick against Benfica, as Dortmund staged their own Champions League second-leg comeback on a night Catalonia witnessed a footballing miracle, brought the striker up to 28 goals for a season that has been disrupted by the African Cup of Nations. His 2 goals in the 6-2 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen last Sunday saw him surpass Robert Lewandowski’s total goal haul for the club, now standing at 105.
Possessing a clinical forward in such red-hot form, Dortmund will entertain any of their potential quarter-final opponents with confidence. The vulnerable defences of Real Madrid and Barcelona, illustrated by Napoli and PSG respectively in the last-16, will be ripe for exposure if Dortmund can hit the same attacking rhythm they did in the second-half on Wednesday night.
An instinctive back-post run to applying a finishing touch to a flicked-on corner would have helped to erase any lingering memory the 27-year-old held from the first-leg where he missed a penalty and wasted two glorious chances before he was substituted, but it was after Roland Burki saved from Luisao and Lukasz Pisczek had to dive in the way of Cervi’s effort to deny an away goal, when the yellow shirts of Dortmund hit their swashbuckling stride.
A neat move involving Gonzalo Castro down the left opened a chance for Aubameyang to add his second but he was quickly thwarted by Ederson before the ball was quickly recycled for Pisczek to release Christian Pulisic, Reus’s replacement and the teenager billed as the next American hope, to chip home the second.
Aubameyang then swept home two excellent crosses from Marcel Schmelzer and Erik Durm as Dortmund eased home and sent a message that ought to resonate with their Champions League rivals.
Even Bayern Munich, ruthless in their disposal of Arsenal in the second round and cantering to another Bundesliga triumph, have cause for concern after they were defeated by the Black and Yellows back in November.
“We played a little bit in the style of Atlético Madrid…our passing rate wasn’t very good but we defended brutally well,” was sporting director Michael Zorc’s assessment of that victory, Dortmund’s first over Bayern since the pre-Pep Guardiola days of 2012, and it showed the ability of Tuchel, a manager who favours unconventional methods but is wedded to a strategic approach, to adapt and up the intensity if required.
Breathing fresh air into a unit left worn out by the ultra-demanding years of Jurgen Klopp, Tuchel has fashioned a fast-paced, thrilling side with Reus and Ousmane Dembele, the exciting 18 year old whom Dortmund beat a host of European clubs for his signature from Rennes last summer, offering support of the free-scoring Aubameyang. The 4-0 win over Benfica was the eighth time they have scored 4+ goals in a match this season.
Reus can’t seem to shake off his recurring injury problems while the returns of Shinji Kagawa and Mario Gotze to Westphalia have failed to take off, the latter is currently side-lined with the metabolic condition Myopathy, but there has been enough from the likes of Dembele, Castro and Raphael Guerreiro, the natural left-back enjoying a more advanced role, to ensure the absence of bigger-names has not been felt.
With Dembele’s 6 goals and 9 assists illustrating he has the potential to fill the void left by Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the €10 million signing of the Swedish wonderkid Alexander Isak secured from AIK in January, the future is bright for Dortmund who once again had to rebuild after a summer of upheaval where they lost Mkhitaryan to Manchester United and captain Mats Hummels to Bayern Munich.
Ilkay Gundogan, a veteran of the Klopp years, also departed for Manchester City but while Sebastian Rode has struggled since his £10 million move from Munich, the 21-year-old Julian Weigl has stepped in with a series of measured and balanced displays in midfield.
The first-team opportunities offered to Guerreiro, Weigl, Dembele, Pulisic and Emre Mor, supplemented by the reputation earned by unearthing developing talents such as Gotze and Lewandowski means the pull of Dortmund, plus the unique setting of the 80,000-seater Westfalenstadion and its famed Yellow Wall, can still be a lure to exciting prodigies like Isak who was set to join Real Madrid before he changed his heart to Germany.
Tuchel’s vibrant side has support with Andre Schurrle who offers lightning pace and devastating finishing on the counter attack despite not managing to live up to his £25 million price-tag following his summer move from Wolfsburg, but it is the young ones leading the charge with Tuchel fielding this season’s youngest XI in the Bundesliga in the 1-1 home draw with Hertha Berlin.
Rollercoaster matches like the 3-3 draw with Ingolstadt and the 8-4 Champions League group stage win over Legia Warsaw indicates the defence can still be a weak spot, with the leadership and elegance of Hummels now missing. Barcelona’s Marc Bartra has been an able deputy alongside Sokratis but Tuchel has already lined up Omar Toprak, a veteran of Leverkusen’s rear-guard, to bolster his back-line in the summer.
His team have hit 26 goals from 8 Champions League games this term and as they enter the last eight for the first time since 2013-14 attack will be the best form of defence for Tuchel. With Aubameyang in searing form and his army of suppliers, the same cavalier approach that saw them miraculously dumped out of last season’s Europa League by Liverpool will understandably be the way to go.
A pair of 2-2 draws with Real Madrid saw Dortmund top their Champions League group and they will be a match for anybody in the last 8. With the Bundesliga now gone, Europe, as well as the DFB Pokal, will be the only routes for Tuchel to win his first trophy with the club. Whatever happens Aubameyang is likely to be moved on for a huge sum as Dortmund continue to prioritise sustainability.