By J Hutcherson (Sep 26, 2017) US Soccer Players – Borussia Dortmund is playing out an old truisms about European club soccer. It’s one thing to win domestically, quite another to win in the Champions League. So far in 2017-18, Dortmund isn’t having any issues winning in the Bundesliga. It’s in Europe where they’re calling their entire project into question.
That project requires winning in Germany and in the Champions League, demonstrating that there’s more than one contender coming out of the Bundesliga right now. 2012-13 was a long time ago by Champions League standards. It’s not enough to fill the biggest stadium in the Bundesliga and take it to domestic rivals. It’s showing that statement of purpose as one of the best teams in Europe, and by extension the world.
Dortmund failed to do that following their last trip to the final. Stalling out in the knockout round is certainly preferable to crashing out in the group stage, but it’s not enough for a club with the ambition of Dortmund. That means trying again, rebuilding, and putting the focus on what it takes to win now. There’s a simple enough answer, a combination of financial strength to keep players and the tactics to win games domestically and in Europe.
Pushing the brand is part of the point for the elite of Europe. They’re all well aware that the market stretches past their local area. The real money is pushing into a lucrative international market that will support summer tours, lucrative sponsorship, and the TV money that can make the difference between holding onto players and selling them. That’s the new reality for the moneyed elite of Europe, and even that isn’t necessarily enough.
It’s interesting that Dortmund replaced coach Thomas Tuchel with Peter Bosz. Last season, Bosz got to experience what it’s like to try to mount a title challenge with a club more than willing to sell off their top players. Ajax might be the biggest team in the Netherlands, but their European struggles are well known. In recent seasons, winning the Eredivise hasn’t been a given, much less playing in the Champions League group stage.
Avoiding that scenario is part of the game for every would-be Bundesliga giant. They’re chasing Bayern Munich’s example, but even that has limits.
Bayern is close to a lock to get out of the Champions League group stage. What they aren’t any longer is a legit title contender. Like the Serie A champions Juventus, even the success of making the Champions League final ends up in a mismatch. La Liga is the gold standard for producing Champions League winners in the modern era, and all involved know that.
For a club like Dortmund, step one is becoming the favorite in whatever group they draw. Advancing out of the group in four consecutive Champions League is nice, but as the favorite? It wasn’t the case when they won the group last season and it isn’t the case in 2017-18.
Real Madrid is the defending champions, shaking off that 2nd-place group finish to ask serious questions about Juventus in a 4-1 final win. Now? Spurs saw off Dortmund 3-1 at home to open the Group H schedule. Same score at home with Real Madrid taking the points on matchday 2. What that means is that it’s up to Borussia Dortmund to show that they’re playing for more than a drop into the Europa League.
That’s how these games end up becoming an indictment of scope. There’s no such thing as a group of death for the elite clubs. They expect to advance, even when drawn against two strong clubs. It’s the other team’s problem, not theirs. That isn’t empty posturing when a club shows season-after-season that they will do what it takes to get out of the group. It’s no secret that the European elite treat the knockout stage as the real Champions League. Making that step regularly knocks out the pretenders.
From there, it’s that next step. Though the money disagrees with Juventus making more than the champions last season due to a lack of Serie A clubs, the competitive reward is convincing the world your team can win. It’s not just that they can compete. Nobody is sleeping on a Champions League finalist. It’s that they can complete a run through Europe’s top tournament.
Right now, that’s the Spanish problem but only for those top teams. For Borussia Dortmund, it’s the lesser league problem. They got into the Champions League knockout round last season as Group F winners, finishing two points ahead of Real Madrid without beating them. That was a group that contained Legia Warsaw and a disappointing Sporting. In the knockout round, Borussia Dortmund knocked out Sporting’s domestic rival Benfica before falling to Monaco.
Showing that the Bundesliga is a stronger league than Portugal’s isn’t showing all that much. Falling to a quality team like Monaco carries with it the standard excuses, but it was a failure by Borussia Dortmund standards. The revamp of the squad following the departure of Thomas Tuchel after winning the domestic cup tells the story. This is a team wanting more by design.
How Borussia Dortmund gets into the European elite is still the question. For the Bundesliga, it’s fully establishing a second club in the top tier. For Europe, it’s trying to find challengers for the La Liga clubs currently collecting Champions League titles. Another European super club losing to a La Liga team is no longer the best story for the Champions League to tell.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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