Considering both Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund had already qualified for the UEFA Champions League round of 16 before Wednesday evening, the final match of the group stage could have been a real snoozefest.
Both sides could have been happy with a draw from the first whistle. Los Blancos would benefit from coming in second in Group F after both FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid won their groups, seeing as they would avoid perhaps the toughest draw in Bayern Munich, a team they have struggled with at times in the past.
For Dortmund, on the other hand, avoiding Barca and Los Colchoneros was preferable, while topping a group with perennial Champions League favourites Real was also a question of pride and prestige.
Sure enough, the game ended in a 2-2 draw both sides would probably have signed off on before kick-off. For Real, it also meant they matched the club record of 34 matches without a defeat, per Spanish publication AS.
One look at the starting XIs, however, revealed that neither side were playing for a draw. It was more of a happy coincidence than a natural consequence. Dortmund deserve a lot of credit for getting a point from the game when they looked dead in the water early in the second half.
Both Zinedine Zidane and Thomas Tuchel selected teams that at least came close to full-strength lineups, and it showed in the 90 minutes at the Santiago Bernabeu.
On balance, the hosts were the better side for most of the time, dominating play especially in the first 45 minutes and creating more clear-cut scoring opportunities throughout the match. Dortmund's plan not to concede the midfield to the likes of Luka Modric and Casemiro only partially worked.
Tuchel surprisingly moved away from the back five/back three hybrid that had given his defence some stability in Bundesliga matches against Bayern and Borussia Monchengladbach, instead going with a fairly attack-minded 4-1-4-1 formation in which Ousmane Dembele played an unusual central role.
The 19-year-old was supposed to spearhead his team's pressing efforts in the middle of the park, with central midfielder Gonzalo Castro and wingers Andre Schurrle and Christian Pulisic chipping in as well. The quartet covered a lot of ground and managed to win the ball back in counter-pressing a number of times.
However, it came at the cost of some maddening inaccuracies in the few moments Dortmund were able to commit men forward in the first half. Because of the Black and Yellows' propensity to give the ball away easily in the opposing half, Real were able to play the transition game over the flanks.
It came as no surprise that their first goal came in a transitional moment. Dortmund captain Marcel Schmelzer pushed high up the pitch, vacating his defensive space at left-back. Neither winger Schurrle nor a central midfielder covered Schmelzer's run forward, leaving acres of space for Daniel Carvajal.
The former Leverkusen man played in a perfect cross to Karim Benzema, who evaded Lukasz Piszczek's cover effortlessly and poked home in the 28th minute. It was an unnecessary goal to concede. Going up against a team such as Real is difficult enough without giving away comparatively easy goals.
It had been coming, too, with goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller already having been tested before. Luckily for his Dortmund side, the veteran rolled back the years with a sublime performance that ultimately kept his team in the match and made the late comeback possible.
The 36-year-old earned a perfect rating from ESPN FC's Stefan Buczko, who noted "the much-maligned Weidenfeller" made "a handful of spectacular saves." One such save came after eight minutes in the second half, denying Benzema from close range.
However, Dortmund failed to clear the ball and to cover the Frenchman in the box, with his glancing header off a James Rodriguez cross proving unstoppable even for Weidenfeller in superb form.
Two goals down with more than 30 minutes to go, most teams would probably have packed it in, dug in defensively and hoped Real would be content with just the two goals.
Dortmund, however, sounded the charge. "When you're two goals behind in Madrid, then you normally don't manage to get a draw," captain Schmelzer said after the match, per the club's official website. "It speaks volumes about us as a team that we still managed it."
Dembele, who had looked almost awestruck in the first half, and Pulisic, who had been dominated physically by Marcelo out on the right wing, came alive and started winning one-on-ones with more regularity.
Dortmund's entire play shifted a few yards further up the pitch, giving them longer spells of possession in their opponents' territory. One such spell brought the first goal.
It was a trademark BVB goal from Tuchel's first season in charge: Julian Weigl played a lobbed pass behind the last line of Real's defence, where Schmelzer timed his run perfectly.
The team captain kept his calm and squared for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was left with an easy finish to keep his impressive scoring run going. It was the Gabon international's ninth goal since the start of November.
Equally as important as getting one back was a double substitution immediately after the goal. Tuchel brought on Marco Reus and Emre Mor for the disappointing Schurrle and the tiring Pulisic, adding vigour to Dortmund's pressing efforts and fresh legs for whatever counter-attacks Real would allow.
A few excellent saves from Weidenfeller and a little luck when Cristiano Ronaldo, whom Dortmund held in check for the most part, hit the post 12 minutes from time kept the team in the game.
The Ruhr side waited for one chance to pounce, and it presented itself in the 88th minute. Zidane's men somewhat carelessly committed forward with Marcelo losing the ball against the relentless Mor.
Schmelzer lauded his young team-mate after the game: "It's extremely important to see that there's more to him than just scoring goals or setting them up. Today he also worked well in defence and rewarded himself and us by winning the ball back before the equaliser."
The 19-year-old had the awareness and technical qualities to play a brilliant pass behind Real's defence, releasing Aubameyang's devilish pace. The star striker ran away from Sergio Ramos, allowing Reus to get positioned in the middle, where he split a double team of Carvajal and Raphael Varane.
It was "the sharpest of counter-attacks," as British commentator Martin Tyler called it in the video below:
Reus finishes off a brilliant counter-attack against Real Madrid. Dortmund finish top of group F https://t.co/iZd4Npjphp2016-12-7 21:40:48
It qualified as what Germans often call a "lucky punch," but Dortmund earned their luck with a spirited display after getting outplayed for the first hour or so.
Coming back from a two-goal deficit against Real is not a small feat, as BT Sport's Archie Rhind-Tutt pointed out:
Archie Rhind-Tutt @archiert1
Borussia Dortmund the first team to be 2-0 down at Real Madrid and not lose in 14 years! (Zidane came off at 2-0 back then too...)2016-12-7 21:53:23
The Black and Yellows, of course, had already come back from being behind twice in the first meeting at home in Westfalenstadion. In total, they trailed for 105 of the 180 minutes of the two matchups with Real. A lot can be said about Dortmund's season to this point, but one thing is for certain: There is no quit in this team.
Through their resiliency, the Ruhr side earned the group win and set a new Champions League record:
Bleacher Report UK @br_uk
.@BVB scored a record 21 goals in the 2016/17 UEFA Champions League group stage 🙌🏼 https://t.co/tIC9sItpgL2016-12-8 06:30:03
Of course, they have to thank Polish champions Legia Warsaw for both of those feats, seeing as they scored two thirds of their goals against them and Real dropped two points in Poland. Still, Dortmund deserved to win the group.
Now the focus shifts to Monday's draw of the round of 16. With both Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen finishing second, Dortmund can only meet five of the eight teams that came in second place.
Per statistician Mister Chip on Twitter, they have about a 50 per cent chance of meeting either Pep Guardiola's Manchester City or Jorge Sampaoli's FC Sevilla, arguably the two toughest draws in the pot:
MisterChip (English) @MisterChiping
#ChampionsLeague Next Draw chances https://t.co/dPIVt8qWo82016-12-7 21:47:00
With Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica and Porto the other options, there are no easy draws for Dortmund. Having already faced and dispatched Porto in the Europa League last season, they would arguably present the most favourable draw.
Whoever it will be, Dortmund proved again on Wednesday they can go toe-to-toe with any team on a good day.