Last year’s Champions League finalists, Borussia Dortmund, have set up an intriguing final day of the group stage as they beat Napoli to keep the pressure on group leaders Arsenal.
The equation for Jurgen Klopp’s men was simple; win and they live to fight another day or lose or draw and they are eliminated from the competition they set ablaze last season. They duly obliged to the former but not without the odd hiccup along the way.
A penalty from Marco Reus and further strikes from Jakub Blazczyskowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sealed a 3-1 victory over the side from Naples.
The match started tentatively but the Westfalenstadion was brought to life when Robert Lewandowski was wrestled to the ground by Federico Fernandez and the referee awarded Dortmund the penalty. The referee was brave and bold to award the penalty, noticing the hand-on approach towards marking that Fernandez was adopting but decided against turning the blind eye, as many European referees tend to do. Reus stepped up and coolly converted into the bottom right-hand corner, sending Pepe Reina the wrong way in the process.
The penalty decision gave the match a certain fiery edge it was lacking in the opening exchanges and seemed to set Dortmund on their way to victory. Napoli failed to capitalise on a second-choice Dortmund back-four as Dries Mertens, Pablo Armero and José Callejon struggled to find Higuain at the heart of the Italian attack. Callejon provided Napoli with their finest moment of the first half but was unable to equalise. The Spaniard surged into the box from a Behrami through ball, left Bender in a twisted mess before whipping a shot low into the far post. It was a reminder that Dortmund weren’t at full strength but a team with a more cohesive attacking game-plan would have benefited much more than Napoli.
As it were, the recurring motif throughout the tie was Dortmund’s inexplicable inability to find the net from open play. Robert Lewandowski scored goals for fun in last season’s charge to the final but he was left bemused tonight as he spurned several presentable opportunities that would have killed the game off.Cutting inside from the left, the Polish forward shot low but missed the target altogether as Reina was flat footed but the former Liverpool keeper was equal to Lewandowski’s threat three minutes later as he advanced speedily off his line to block the shot and keep Napoli alive.
The confidence that oozed from Lewandowski last season seemed far removed tonight as he hesitated to shoot once the impressive Henrikh Mkhitaryan played him which lead to Raul Albiol muscling him off the ball and clearing the danger. It looked as if one of the greatest clichés in football would be acted out by Dortmund; missing chance after chance at the top level will only lead to heartache at the end of the match.
Yet the attractive German side were not disheartened and continued to flood forward in search of adding comfort to the scoreline. Not long after the restart, Dortmund broke clear at blistering speed following a terrible free-kick from Mertens that failed to beat the first man. Mhkitaryan glided forward gracefully before laying off a reverse flick for Blaszczykowski who switched the ball first time to Reus but the Dortmund winger could only strike Reina and leave Jurgen Klopp furiously waving his hands all over the touchline in disbelief. Tempers were high. As were the stakes.
From that sudden outburst of emotion, Klopp nearly sent himself into an aneurysm-induced fit once Blaszczykowski failed to square the ball to Lewandowski after finding himself in a promising position on the edge of Napoli’s area. Cristian Maggio was able to sprint back and lunge heroically to scoop the ball from under Lewandowski’s feet to keep his team in it.
The game became very open and stretched following this and it was Napoli who looked the more exposed outfit. End-to-end waves of attacking play led Napoli’s defenders hideously exposed as the defensive shield of Dzemaili and Valon Behrami disappeared to leave gaping holes. As a result, Mhkitaryan set off on another mesmerizing, mazy run that left Napoli scrambling only for Reina to come to the rescue as he deflected the ball towards the net and Albiol desperately scrambled clear as the ball was spinning close to the line.
That, as it turned out, was to be the final warning for a horribly misshapen Napoli as Reus screeched clear on the counter-attack and clipped the ball over to Blaszczykowski but there was to be no mistake this time as the winger kept his composure to nutmeg Reina and give Dortmund the cushion they had been pushing for all night long.
Substitute Lorenzo Insigne pulled one back for Napoli with an impressive finish but it was a glimmer of what could have been for the Italians as they failed to conjure up any sort of meaningful attack earlier in the night which may have left them in a better position come 70 minutes. The revival was short-lived anyway as Dortmund’s own live-wire off the bench, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang notched his superhuman speed into full flight to latch onto a Lewandowski pass and clip fancifully over Reina to seal the victory.
Dortmund set up an interesting final day in Group F as Arsenal, who are on 12 points, travel to Napoli needing a win to ensure qualification. The Germans travel to bottom-side Marseille also needing a win despite tonight’s victory bringing them level on 9 points with the Italians.
Jurgen Klopp left the Westfalenstadion a relieved man tonight. His Dortmund side have struggled to re-live the brilliance of last season’s campaign and were coming off a bruising home hammering to the Bundesliga leaders, Bayern Munich but they managed enough tonight to avoid the misery and humiliation of an early exit. For Napoli, they have also failed to impress in this group and need to show their character and resilience if they are to overcome the strength of Arsenal in a few weeks time.