A few months ago, when 1997 winners Borussia Dortmund were considered UEFA Champions League outsiders rather than genuine contenders, Champions Matchday asked Jürgen Klopp whether his side had what it takes to win it.
The coach let out his trademark hearty laugh. "I wouldn't say no because I have enough imagination," he said. "But it will be an even bigger sensation than in 1997 if we were to make it past this group. That means we would have put two big names out already and our chances would be greater."
What that tells you is that Dortmund's coaches and players are not as surprised as the rest of Europe by their performances this season. One reason is that many insiders secretly thought a tough group would help the team by lifting the weight of expectation from the players' shoulders. "Looking at our history, being one of the favourites wouldn't be good for us," Klopp said. "I don't know how to handle that. But I do know how to handle the role of an outsider."
Not least by wresting the Bundesliga title from FC Bayern München two years in a row – and throwing in a German Cup too. However, in Europe the theme of Klopp's reign was good football going unrewarded, as in last term's UEFA Champions League. Dortmund came bottom of a group with Arsenal FC, Olympiacos FC and Olympique de Marseille, collecting only four points. But they controlled most games, missed a plethora of chances and were hit on the break or punished for individual mistakes.
Dortmund dealt with it by rethinking their approach. If you get knocked out once or twice after dominating matches, you can blame luck. If it happens more often, there is clearly a lesson to be heeded. It seems they did as Dortmund finished above Real Madrid CF, AFC Ajax and Manchester City FC in a pool of champions, Group D, to set up a round of 16 tie against FC Shakhtar Donetsk.
"I have learned a statistic," said Klopp, 45. "Teams that run too much lose, and teams that press reduce their chances of winning the game. Now I know why it happened. We ran more than our opponents and we pressed them all over, as high as possible.
"If I have a share in the success, I also have a great share in the failure at European level. But we have all learned. Personally, when we played against Arsenal in London, I saw the best forward ever: Robin van Persie. I didn't know a player could play three positions during 90 minutes. It was a great experience – and we want to use that now."
This campaign, Dortmund are playing more of a counterattacking game in Europe. They have much less possession and press only in spurts. They are creating fewer opportunities yet are taking them more ruthlessly. "The speed of Marco Reus will help us a lot, compared to the mobility of Shinji Kagawa, for example," Klopp said earlier this season. He has been proven right: Reus is perfectly suited to the counter.
"It is incredible how fast the development is going and how much the guys learn," he continued. "We are such a young team. When we started in Europe three years ago, the average age was 22. We are now around 23.6, still young. In football today, it is rare to grow together, so everyone at the club is happy about the development of this team."
The full version of this interview is in the current edition of Champions Matchday, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League, available in digital versions on Apple Newsstand or Zinio, as well as in print. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.
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