The contradiction at the heart of Borussia Dortmund’s unlikely Champions League fairytale

Borussia Dortmund have reinvigorated Jadon Sancho, left (Getty)
Borussia Dortmund have reinvigorated Jadon Sancho, left (Getty)

The fifth best team in Germany are one of the four best in Europe. In one respect, anyway. Welcome to the confusing world of Borussia Dortmund, at their highest ebb in continental competition for more than a decade and set for their lowest Bundesliga finish in nine years. The surprise Champions League semi-finalists gained more than just a first-leg lead against Paris Saint-Germain last week. In a world of coefficient calculations, their victory made it mathematically certain Germany will have five places in next year’s Champions League. And Dortmund are fifth, unlikely to finish higher, guaranteed not to come lower.

The alternative method into next season’s Champions League, which would have long sounded too implausible to invoke, entails winning this year’s competition. Now Dortmund are a draw and a win away from a triumph that would be a throwback: to the days when, in 1997, they were the underdogs who won the final, or 1982 and 2005 when Aston Villa and Liverpool could finish 30 and 37 points respectively behind the winners of their domestic leagues and yet conquer Europe. Some 24 points off the pace in Germany, Dortmund are not the finest team in North Rhine-Westphalia, let alone Europe. And yet they are two results from a glory few envisaged.

They cannot afford a repeat of their inauspicious entrance to this season’s Champions League, a 2-0 defeat in Paris. It was a performance to suggest that Dortmund would be a casualty of the group of death, not its winner. However, their subsequent results in Europe have been hugely impressive, with a lone defeat in the next 10 games. There is a case that Dortmund have failed the biggest tests in domestic competitions: while they drew twice with Bayer Leverkusen and beat Bayern Munich away, they lost 4-0 at home to them and have five defeats against RB Leipzig and VfB Stuttgart.

But Dortmund were terrific in home and away wins over Newcastle. They may have had three games in one in their eventful second-leg victory over Atletico Madrid but they progressed deservedly. They could have conceded to PSG last week but could also have won by more.

PSG came up against an impressive Dortmund in Germany (AP)
PSG came up against an impressive Dortmund in Germany (AP)

If a trip to Paris comes in the context of last season’s final-day implosion at Mainz, the loss of nerve that cost them the Bundesliga title, it also occurs during a season that has brought something of an identity crisis. Dortmund have been less like Dortmund than they were, so their answer has been to hire even more people with Dortmund in their blood.

Edin Terzic is the lifelong fan who became a scout, coach and eventually manager. Yet his style of play has veered away from the gegenpressing that Jurgen Klopp introduced to define the club. In October, Terzic spoke of bringing football that was “less sexy, more successful”; at times this season, it seemed both less sexy and less successful. In December, Dortmund appointed Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender, two of Klopp’s former midfielders, as his assistant managers. To some, it seemed like paving the way for his exit. There is an ongoing debate if Terzic is quite good enough.

Meanwhile, Sven Mislintat, the chief scout with an outstanding record in the Klopp and Thomas Tuchel years but a man who wasted millions in an ill-fated spell at Ajax, is returning as technical director. The newly appointed managing director for sport is Lars Ricken, the teenage scorer in the 1997 final win over Juventus. If that has brought questions about the future of the sporting director – former Dortmund captain Sebastian Kehl – and the long-serving CEO, Hans-Joachim Watzke, who will stand down in 2025, many a route leads back to the Signal Iduna Park.

For the loanee Jadon Sancho, it is a comeback with the potential to embarrass Manchester United, given their outcast was last week’s man of the match. Yet Sancho’s presence is instructive in another respect: for years Dortmund was Europe’s premier finishing school, with their capacity to identify and improve young talent proving a profitable business. Now there is no real successor to Erling Haaland or Jude Bellingham, yet Dortmund could reach a Champions League final without either.

It would be a wonderful farewell to Marco Reus, the second-highest scorer in their history and the man who has made the fourth most appearances. He will leave in the summer. Mats Hummels, the other survivor of the 2013 final, has been majestic at times to give Dortmund the chance of a return to Wembley. The fact it could be Bayern again in London adds another element to consider.

That the semi-final is against Paris Saint-Germain, whose ethos has been very different from Dortmund’s for much of the last dozen years, may garner them some support. Yet if Dortmund are not quite the team they were, there is Dortmund DNA throughout the club. And if their perennial lot seemed to be to finish second to Bayern in the Bundesliga, now Dortmund have regressed in Germany and progressed in Europe. Perhaps all the way to a Champions League final.

PSG vs Borussia Dortmund, KO 8pm Tuesday, is on TNT