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MX News Update 2024

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Borussia Dortmund Knocked PSG Out By The Grace Of Millimeters

The Kylian Mbappé Derby will have to wait. After the semi-finals of the Champions League were set, eyes turned to the most prestigious potential final match-up, between Mbappé’s current club, Paris Saint-Germain, and his most likely destination this summer, Real Madrid. Madrid had a tough opponent in Bayern Munich—despite that club’s domestic struggles this year, it’s still Bayern Munich—and it still does, heading into Wednesday’s second leg tied at 2-2; PSG, on the other hand, looked to be heavy favorites against another German side in Borussia Dortmund. Even after Dortmund won the first leg at home 1-0 last week, PSG had the comforts of the Parc des Princes waiting for a minor comeback. This was a chance to make their second final in four years, and maybe PSG’s best opportunity at finally winning the Champions League.

So, about that:

Dortmund is no stranger to the late stages of the Champions League—historically, anyway, having won the 1996-97 edition and finishing as runner-up in 2012-13—but this did not seem to be a season that would end with the Black and Yellows fighting for the top prize in continental soccer. Sure, they beat Atlético Madrid behind a stunning barrage of goals last round, but they currently are outside of the Champions League spots for next year and (Correction 1:33 pm – Dortmund’s win on Tuesday clinched the fifth Champions League spot for the Bundesliga) fifth in the Bundesliga standings with two matches to go. More than that, though, Dortmund was faced with an opponent for the semis that was both richer and more talented. And that opponent also employs Mbappé, who can be counted as one of the best two or three players in the world on his day.

Dortmund’s mission on Tuesday, then, was to survive, on the road, against what was sure to be a flurry of Parisian attacks. Sure enough, that’s how the game started, and it didn’t look particularly great for the visitors’ chances to hold that one-goal advantage. Dortmund settled into a counter-attacking pose, and even relieved some pressure from PSG’s early attacks, but by halftime, the exhaustion was already beginning to show. The hosts controlled 63 percent of the ball in the first half, and out-shot Dortmund 10-4. Mbappé was able to get a couple of half-chances in that time period, though nothing went in for him; PSG midfielder Vitinha kept trying, both out of desperation and out of taking what Dortmund gave him, to score from 30 yards out.

Still, though, something was brewing even in that one-sided first half. While Dortmund held firm in its own box, its counter-attacks were strikingly efficient. I would argue that it had the best chances of the half, including a shot from Karim Adeyemi that required PSG goalie Gianluigi Donnarumma to make a stellar save in the 36th minute.

(Donnarumma has his share of detractors, but he was instrumental in keeping PSG in this tie for as long as they were in it.) Still, though, it was a bit of a trying first half for both sides, and I still saw PSG as the likely winners as the teams entered halftime. There is simply too much talent on that side—if somehow not as much as you might expect given how much money the club has spent over the years—and too much time for a home team to equalize and perhaps take the lead on aggregate.

That changed just five minutes into the second half, courtesy of Mats Hummels. The big German defender was phenomenal on Tuesday without the ball, breaking up PSG attacks cleanly—well, with one exception; we’ll get there in a bit—and helping break the counter-press. His biggest contribution of the match was on the other end, though; in the 50th minute, he leapt over everyone to latch onto a picture-perfect Julian Brandt corner kick. Hummels was able to nod it down under Donnarumma’s arms and into the goal, and double Dortmund’s lead:

The dynamics of the match changed in that moment; PSG, now down two goals on aggregate, surged forward and peppered the visitors’ goal. In the 40 minutes, plus stoppage time, following that goal, PSG shot a whopping 20 times and controlled 79 percent of the possession, a comical lopsidedness rare even in 6-0 beat-downs. Mbappé, of course, led the line with four of those shots, but everyone got in on the action; Vitinha kept trying for bangers, left back Nuno Mendes chipped in three shots from out wide, Marco Asensio subbed on in the 63rd minute and was able to add three of his own before the whistle blew. And yet, PSG couldn’t score.

Part of that is that Dortmund, with even less of the ball, kept holding strong and forcing PSG into contested shots and sub-optimal chances. The other, maybe more memorable part, is that PSG couldn’t stop hitting the woodwork. For the match, the club hit the post four times, a number so obscene that it began to feel like fate was controlling the proceedings more than any of the players.

It’s fitting that the most painful of those post hits came from Mbappé, who bounced an awkward shot from the center of the box into the post in the 86th minute:

The shot chart only served to underline PSG’s aggression and futility, in equal parts:

There was also Hummels’ one mistake, which somehow didn’t bite Dortmund in the ass. In the 65th minute, he dropped into a slide tackle to try to take the ball from Ousmane Dembélé. Hummels missed, and took the Frenchman out just inside the box. At least, that’s how it looked like in real time, but after initially signaling for a penalty, the referee switched gears and gave a free kick as close to the line of the box as possible:

Nothing came from that free kick; Asensio blasted it into his own man, because that’s the type of game it was for PSG. If American football is ordinarily a game of inches, Tuesday in Paris was a game of millimeters. If the posts had been just a little smaller, maybe PSG scores three or four goals. If Hummels had mistimed his tackle just a fraction worse, maybe PSG scores the ensuing penalty and seizes the momentum.

Maybe maybe maybe. But the reality is that Dortmund didn’t really need luck, or fate, or some uncharacteristic misses from Mbappé. The German side came into Tuesday’s game just as it did in the first leg, hoping to rely on its defense—it is not lost on me that a side from the Bundesliga, often thought of as the worst defensive league of Europe’s big five, had a defensive game-plan in mind—and some instances of brilliance to tilt enough moments in its favor for the win. Thanks to Hummels’ towering header, as well as his and his fellow defenders’ dogged efforts, it worked.

Dortmund might have been the smallest and least heralded club of the four semi-finalists, but everyone is good at this stage of the tournament. And now Dortmund is going just a bit further than its moneyed opponents. Will it face Madrid, as might be expected, or its forever domestic rivals of Bayern in a rematch of that 2013 final? The best thing I can say about Dortmund is that it won’t matter. The players know who they are, and what they can do. And now they’ve ridden that self-belief all the way to the club’s third Champions League final.