Borussia Dortmund's House of Cards Finally Collapses Against Real Madrid

Clark WhitneyFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2014

Dortmund's Kevin Grosskreutz, Jonas Hofmann and Julian Schieber, from left, ponder after the Champions League quarterfinal first leg soccer match between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund at the Santiago Bernabeu   stadium in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, April 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Andres Kudacki

An underwhelming Dortmund were put to the sword on Wednesday in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-finals tie with Real Madrid. Jurgen Klopp's side, which beat the Spaniards en route to the final last year, fell 3-0 at the Bernabeu in a match that saw all its flaws exploited with deadly precision.

The 3-0 deficit is one that even the return of Robert Lewandowski in the second leg won't be able to overcome. Yes, the Pole put four goals past Real at the Signal-Iduna Park last spring, but Dortmund's problems extend far beyond the absence of their goal-getter. The visitors' physical inferiority left Real with chance after chance, their poor control saw them concede possession too easily in midfield, and BVB lacked any precision in the attacking third.

Dortmund were a far cry from the team that reached the final last season. And understandably so: They played without the sold Mario Gotze, suspended Robert Lewandowski and injured quintet Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer, Sven Bender, Ilkay Gundogan and Jakub Blaszczykowski.

Even though domestic form puts BVB in a similar position to 2012-13, results in the Bundesliga are deceiving. A league competition is an endurance race, a test of a good team's ability to beat lesser teams. But domestic position alone shows little of a team's ability at the highest level, and there is no comparison between Dortmund's current best and their class last spring.

In defending, Sokratis Papastathopoulos was adequate as cover for Subotic, and Mats Hummels generally played well. Lukasz Piszczek generally did well to silence Ronaldo, but an individual mistake gifted Real a third goal.

On the left, though, Erik Durm was too passive in defending. Typically able to cover his inexperience as a defender by using his superior physicality, the ex-Mainz striker met his match in the strong and fast Gareth Bale. The Welshman shrugged off his marker on several occasions, exposing Durm in ways the 21-year-old hadn't been troubled against the likes of Lars Stindl.

Dortmund's biggest problem was, however, in midfield. The high-intensity "gegenpressing" system of yesteryear was completely and utterly gone. The human vacuum cleaner himself, Bender, was replaced by Sebastian Kehl, who looked every bit of his 34 years. If Andrea Pirlo and Xavi struggle to keep pace with elite opponents at 34, it's no surprise that the Dortmund captain couldn't manage on Wednesday.

To Kehl's left was the more youthful Nuri Sahin, but for all his passing ability, the German-born Turkey international lacked the versatility Gundogan provided in 2012-13. Sahin is great at controlling tempo in a passing game but is otherwise limited. Gundogan could not only pass but dribble, press defensively and drive the team from box-to-box. His ability to work in tight spaces was, critically, missing on Wednesday.

Andres Kudacki

Among the front four, BVB distinctly lacked a touch of class. Kevin Grosskreutz was never going to be more than a defensive winger, but BVB assumed they'd signed a quality attacker when they spent €27.5 million on Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenia international's first touch let him down again and again, he was never quick enough in the box to fire a shot that wasn't blocked, and his passing accuracy was dismal.

The fact that his most worthwhile contribution to the game was a tackle at the edge of his own penalty box is a rather damning indictment of Mkhitaryan's performance.

Up front, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a couple opportunities to grab a goal for BVB but consistently scuffed his shots. His blistering pace was a trump card he was unable to play. The Gabon international looked lost at times, perhaps overcome by the occasion.

The brilliant Roman Weidenfeller aside, Dortmund's only standout performer was Marco Reus. The Germany international had the quickness, soft touch and, most importantly, the spatial judgment to find his way into and exploit the seams between Real defenders. One sadly over-hit pass aside, he played a great game.

At the same time, one could tell Reus missed the genius of Gotze, whose touch and decision-making are on a whole different level from those of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan. It was near-impossible to shut down both Reus and Gotze, but stopping only the former has proven more than possible.

With all things considered, fans can be disappointed by the result but hardly by the players' performance. They were a motley crew of mostly inexperienced, mostly out-of-position players that didn't fit together in a coherent system. It rather is quite remarkable they've come as far as they have in the Champions League and DFB-Pokal while remaining second in the Bundesliga.

Playing the majority of a season with half a team is tough enough for even deep squads. For Dortmund, it's near impossible: Their bench on Wednesday cost a combined €8.2 million, the majority of which was spent on the painfully underwhelming Julian Schieber.

With all things considered, the situation for BVB in international play could be worse.

Juventus are strolling to a third consecutive Serie A title yet couldn't progress from their group. Manchester City have spent over €1 billion, and a couple group stage humiliations and a round of 16 exit is all they have to show for it on the international stage. And these are teams with net transfer budgets orders of magnitude greater than Dortmund's and without the the crippling injuries Klopp's side has had to endure.

BVB will bow out of the Champions League next Tuesday, in all likelihood losing the tie by multiple goals. The result will hurt their faithful and legendary fans. But Dortmund's reserves being comfortably bettered by an elite and experienced Real Madrid side is nothing of which to be ashamed. Their house of cards has finally collapsed. But better that their reserves are found inferior than their entire first team.

Follow Clark Whitney on Twitter