When Borussia Dortmund slumped to a 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid in Spain, it seemed the team that had enraptured Europe last season was long gone. The stars who had led BVB to the final 12 months ago had left, succumbed to injury or regressed.
The second leg was an apt demonstration of just what Dortmund can do. After a trying season for everyone concerned, BVB rediscovered its magic as it claimed a 2-0 win — and went close on countless other occasions to forcing extra time. Not quite enough, but a heroic effort nonetheless.
Perhaps the wonderful thing about Dortmund is the way it is constantly on the verge of either failure or glory. Within minutes of the first whistle, Lukasz Piszczek conceded a penalty after handling a left-wing cross. If Angel Di Maria had scored, the tie would probably have been dead, but Roman Weidenfeller stood tall to push the ball to safety.
Then came the "heavy metal" soccer that has defined Jurgen Klopp's team over the years. BVB poured forward in blurs of black and yellow, hassling the Madrid players from the front, forcing two goals — both brilliantly taken by Marco Reus.
The comeback, which had seemed impossible, was on. And Dortmund didn't even have the majority of its first team on the field. Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer, Ilkay Gundogan, Sven Bender and Jakub Blaszczykowski were all missing due to injury. The reserves — Manuel Friedrich, dragged out of retirement earlier this season, and Oliver Kirch, who has barely played all season — were taking on the Galacticos.
Given the frantic pace at which Dortmund played the game, it conceded a fair number of chances, but Mats Hummels was indomitable at the back, making a particularly impressive tackle on Karim Benzema when he had an empty net to aim for. When he was beaten, Weidenfeller came to the rescue.
Dortmund will come away with regrets, of course. BVB missed a number of clear-cut opportunities to score an away goal in the first leg, but was missing the suspended Robert Lewandowski, the star striker who had famously dumped Madrid out of the competition last year.
Even on the night, when Dortmund's players played out of their skins and had Carlo Ancelotti's side well and truly rattled, they fluffed their lines. Henrikh Mkhitaryan missed a glorious opening in each half, while Iker Casillas made a brilliant save to deny Kevin Grosskreutz.
But, for the casual observer, this is what soccer should be. A team of young players who have grown up and developed together, a refreshing change from the ludicrous amounts of cash thrown away on world-class talent in the modern game.
Dortmund plays for the shirt, has an animated coach on the touchlines and a unique stadium that produces one of the best atmospheres in Europe. BVB was the underdog and had no right to rattle the nine-time European Cup winner Tuesday.
Perhaps Hummels himself sums it up best. "I am conflicted. We had en evening you don't forget fast. We could have produced one of the biggest sensations in football — now it was just an awesome evening. This team shows what it has to offer every year."
Madrid may have scraped through the tie, but the hearts and minds belong to BVB.