Despite Borussia Dortmund securing a two-goal cushion from its first leg tie with Porto, the biggest cheer of the night was for one of its own: Nuri Sahin. The former Real Madrid and Liverpool midfielder, a title-winner at Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp with more than 200 appearances to his name, was named in the starting lineup for the first time since February 2015 after an injury layoff of 355 days.
He was given a starting shirt alongside Julian Weigl, the young protege of Sahin who has become a regular in the team since his move from 1860 Munich. The 27-year-old, even when injured, was a role model for Weigl and other young players like USA kid Christian Pulisic. Sahin’s return was in fact aided by casualties elsewhere — Ilkay Gundogan and Roman Weidenfeller have been unwell this week and were left out of the squad.
Borussia Dortmund has developed an intimate relationship with the maligned UEFA club competition, seen as secondary to its big brother, the UEFA Champions League. The Bundesliga club has been competing in the tournament since July 30 when it secured a win over Austrian cracks Wolfsberger AC. Ten games, 27 goals and just two defeats later, the final in Basel, Switzerland is certainly a realistic aim for the side sitting second in Germany’s top-flight, with goals from Lukasz Piszczek and Marco Reus sealing a 2-0 home win.
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To some, the Europa League is merely an added distraction in an increasingly demanding football season for the continent’s top teams. German teams have a dismal record in the tournament with just two Bundesliga finalists in 18 seasons. But Dortmund isn’t here to make up the numbers this time around. To the club’s supporters, who have backed the club from financial ruin to the brink of European glory, the romance of success trumps over any potential financial gains, or lack of, in this case.
The imposing, eye-catching choreography which greeted the teams upon entrance was a rallying cry to its players. "Complete the collection," the banners read. The Europa League, or UEFA Cup in its previous incarnation, is a trophy required to add Dortmund to the pantheon of European greats. Only Chelsea, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Ajax have won all three major UEFA tournaments; Champions League, UEFA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup (now defunct).
At his prematch press conference on Wednesday, when asked about the strengths of the Portuguese side, Thomas Tuchel made note of the side’s impressive defensive compactness. That was illustrated in the first half, in spite of Porto’s defense taking to the field strapped-up, bandaged, and worse for wear after a 2-1 win at rivals Benfica last week.
Spanish defender Ivan Marcano was missing, forcing coach Jose Peseiro to shift Miguel Layun into centerback and pull winger Silvestre Varela back into right fullback. But there was always the experience and nous of goalkeeper Ilker Casillas, the former Real Madrid stopper who boasts the most European appearances for a number one (162).
With a traditional front-three, Dortmund stretched Porto’s defense enough to open up holes in its armor. Henrikh Mkhitaryan glided out to the left-flank, crossing the ball into the mixer with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang the target, but Bruno Martins Indi was sharp enough to clear over his own crossbar. Three minutes later, Mkhitaryan was involved in Dortmund’s opener; he took a short corner to combine with Shinji Kagawa before crossing to Piszczek who headed in at the second attempt.
Dortmund’s refined passing play allowed the home side to completely dominate proceedings. Tempo and incision were the ingredients required with ball dominance secured, but chances were limited for the hosts following the goal. Marco Reus’ free-kick on 21 minutes was over the target, while Kagawa blazed wide on 32 minutes after some excellent interplay among the front-three.
Sahin exited on 58 minutes and replaced by Moritz Leitner who has been at Dortmund since 2011. The midfielder, still just 23 despite many writing him off after some failed loan spells, carried an attacking impetus from deep as the home side looked to turn a narrow lead into a comfortable one. Piszczek headed wide on 62 minutes and a minute later, Kagawa passed up a glorious chance after some pinball in the box.
But eight minutes later, the Japanese midfielder arrowed a pass into Mkhitaryan who cut the ball back to Reus and the forward continued his promising run of performances with a good finish, albeit helped in by a deflection. Porto couldn’t manage an away goal in Germany, meaning Dortmund, deserved winners on the night, sit comfortably in the driving seat for the second leg.
However, as Bayern Munich’s 3-1 loss in Portugal showed last season, this is a squad full of Champions League quality. Tuchel and Co. still have some work to do next Thursday at the Estadio Dragao.