Olympiastadion, Munich, 1997. Dortmund fans know what that means. They remember the crowning achievement in their club’s history, the 3-1 victory over Italian giants Juventus (with Zinedine Zidane) to win their first and only Champions League trophy. Since then Dortmund’s journey has seen incredible highs and disappointing lows. The club has been on the brink of bankruptcy, failed in Europe, been close to relegation, and then rebounded to become one of the most praised clubs in the world after their back-to-back Bundesliga title wins. They’ve been through it all, and now they want the Champions League trophy once more.
But this year’s field has incredible strength. Dortmund are in the Group of Death, with all four teams the current champions of their respective leagues. Real Madrid and Manchester City are the clear favorites to survive to the knockout stages, but when you look around Germany you get the feeling that there is still hope that Dortmund can prevail. After all, they’ve been the underdogs before.
1997 was different. Dortmund had a relatively easy group stage, and this was a year when only one German and one English side made even the group stages. Back then there were only 16 teams instead of 32, and teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, AC Milan, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City either failed to make the cut or in some cases were nowhere near the powers they are today. There is just simply more competition today than ever, and it’s impossible to predict how this campaign will turn out.
What is clear is that Dortmund’s opener against Ajax is a must win. Maybe not mathematically, but this is a game that Dortmund needs to win for their mental strength. They will be playing at home in front of one of the best crowds in the world and against what is perceived to be the weakest opponent in the group. They don’t want a repeat of last year’s abysmal CL performance, even if last year the team paid more attention to their Bundesliga play rather than how they fared in Europe. That can’t be an excuse this year, and with two consecutive titles over rivals Bayern Munich they must now focus on becoming a force on the continent.
The first game of the group stage is always difficult to predict. Ajax is currently third in the Dutch league after five games (with no losses) and Dortmund are fourth in the Bundesliga, which few believe is indicative of their strength. The German side has had some loss of their famous fluidity with the departure of Kagawa to Manchester United, but that looks more like early season sluggishness that is beginning to wear off.
Where Dortmund have the biggest edge is the fitness of their squad. Ajax have Nicolai Boilesen, Eyong Enoh and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson all with injuries, while Dortmund don’t have any major injury concerns and may even be able to reintroduce Sven Bender after his hernia surgery. That means Reus, Lewandowski, Kuba, Götze, Hummels, and the rest of Klopp’s preferred starting 11 should all play, and that is a team capable of beating most top teams if they play to their full potential.
For Ajax, Ryan Babel may get the chance to start, and he is familiar with Dortmund after playing in the Bundesliga these last two seasons with Hoffenheim. Even with his inclusion there is still the sense that on paper the Dortmund lineup is much stronger and that they should be bolstered by their home advantage.
Dortmund know they can be upset. In their history they’ve often been the ones who have upset the giants. Now they must give everything they’ve got and show the world that they can again battle the likes of Bayern Munich for more than just domestic titles. With their lack of injuries, the comfortable win over Bayer Leverkusen this weekend and the players’ confidence in playing alongside one other due to little squad shakeup from last season, they should win this match against Ajax at home, and they must to have a shot at advancing from the group.