Two weeks ago, an inspired Borussia Dortmund fought tooth and nail for 90 minutes and deservedly overcame Real Madrid with a 2-1 win in their Champions League clash. Some called it a fluke, insisting that at the Santiago Bernabeu, the Spanish giants would put BVB back in their place.
Los Blancos had the chance to redeem themselves on Tuesday, but spent most of the 90 minutes chasing the game. Dortmund came out with guns blazing and were comfortably the better side with the score still 0-0. Marco Reus scored a brilliant opener and even after Pepe drew the hosts level, BVB continued to play as the more aggressive side. The visitors were rewarded on the stroke of halftime as they took a deserved lead.
Real looked the better after the break, but that was to be expected from a strong team playing from behind at home. BVB coach Juergen Klopp opted to play to defend a lead rather than chase a third goal and made defensive substitutions. The trainer's strategem almost worked: The visitors would have won if not for Mesut Özil's inch-perfect free kick at the death.
Los Blancos got their point, but it was most certainly not enough to prove themselves as the better side.
A win and a draw is an impressive record for the German side, but the flow of play in the two legs speaks more of their superiority. Over the course of two legs, Dortmund held the lead for 88 minutes. Real never were ahead and were chasing the game almost exactly as often as the terms were level.
Real supporters will be quick to blame the absence of Marcelo and Sami Khedira for the loss, but BVB were not at full strength either, with Jakub Blaszczykowski being sidelined for both legs and Ilkay Gundogan missing most of the first leg. And to complain about having to use a €30 million substitute in Luka Modric is really grasping at straws.
This is not to say that Kevin Grosskreutz and Sebastian Kehl are individually superior to Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso. But both BVB players, like the rest of their teammates, plied their trade well within their own limitations, and over the 180 minutes Dortmund were most certainly the better side.
Dortmund have proven themselves as better than Real Madrid, but what of Europe's other top clubs?
Juventus and Manchester City can't win a game in continental play, and BVB have beaten Bayern in five of their last six meetings. Chelsea and Manchester United have looked questionable at best in their matches against elite opposition, and the latter struggled in Champions League wins against Braga and Cluj.
Where do Dortmund rank among Europe's top clubs?
And then there's Barcelona. Spain's other superpower side have been widely regarded as Europe's strongest club for four years. However, since peaking in 2009, the Catalans have slipped. Xavi and Carles Puyol have aged, and Barca now depend almost solely upon Lionel Messi—as opposed to their previous combination of the Argentine, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry—to score their goals.
Barcelona have won, drawn and lost a match each against Real Madrid this season, and it can be reasonably asserted that the clubs are on a level plane. Given that Dortmund and Real play a similar brand of football but BVB do it better, the German side would have nothing to fear in a head-to-head with Barca. That's incredible, considering BVB have spent less on transfers than they have sold in the last three years and have recorded record profits.
Over the course of a season in three tournaments, Dortmund will not record nearly as many wins as many other clubs in Europe.
They will, as they did against Stuttgart on Saturday, be held to draws and occasionally lose matches: It's the cost of playing an exhausting brand of football and having only a couple viable substitutes. But a team's class is not shown in whether a club can beat a lesser side by one or five goals. True class is measured in how a team can fare in a big match against top-class opposition.
Dortmund have played three Champions League matches against Europe's elite sides and have never for a minute been behind. On the greatest stage they've played with more heart and class, and simply overwhelmed their opponents. There is still a long way to go before the Champions League final, but they have absolutely nothing to fear.