Eliminated with barely a whimper last season, Borussia Dortmund have looked an altogether different proposition this term and will fear no one after topping an especially tricky group.
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When Borussia Dortmund won the first of two consecutive Bundesliga titles in 2011, many expected Jürgen Klopp's precocious young team to take the UEFA Champions League by storm. Disappointingly Dortmund finished bottom of their group, but they have visibly learned from that experience and more than made amends this term, topping arguably the competition's toughest section.
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After a hard-fought home win against AFC Ajax in their Group D opener, there was a sense of fulfilment as Dortmund delivered a trademark attacking display against Manchester City FC two weeks later. Die Schwarzgelben created countless opportunities and were only denied a deserved three points by the brilliance of City goalkeeper Joe Hart and Mario Balotelli's late penalty. A 2-1 home victory and 2-2 away draw against Real Madrid CF proved it was no flash in the pan and after clinching the section with further wins against Ajax and City, Dortmund are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
Dortmund's matchday three triumph against Madrid showed the German title holders had overcome the naivety that hampered their last campaign. Many sides would have folded when Cristiano Ronaldo cancelled out Robert Lewandowski's opener within a matter of minutes, but Dortmund remained unfazed by their illustrious guests. Driven on by their magnificent crowd, they went on to claim a 2-1 success thanks to Marcel Schmelzer's second-half volley. The realisation among the players that they could go on to achieve something special was clear during the post-match interviews.
Most new signings take a while to bed in, but Marco Reus picked up exactly where he left off after joining Dortmund from VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach during the summer. Reus's swift integration may have had something to do with the 23-year-old being Dortmund born and bred, not to mention good friends with Germany colleagues Mario Götze and Kevin Grosskreutz. Three goals in his maiden UEFA Champions League season, including crucial breakthrough strikes at City and Madrid, saw Reus more than fill the void left by Shinji Kagawa's departure for Manchester United FC.
With his team already qualified for the last 16 as pool winners, Klopp chose to give some fringe players a chance in Dortmund's final group match against City. Defender Oliver Kirch, goalscorer Julian Schieber and young Leonardo Bittencourt all gained valuable exposure to Europe's top table, but it was technically versed midfielder Moritz Leitner who stood out most. The former TSV 1860 München man showed confidence beyond his 20 years on his full competition debut.
With an average age of just 24, Dortmund have one of the youngest squads in this season's tournament, making their unbeaten march through the group stage all the more impressive. Of their starting XI against City on matchday two, six came through the German academy system, implemented after the national team's early exit from UEFA EURO 2000.
"What can I say? It's the kind of thing you dream about as a kid. It was clear before the game that we were up against one of the best teams in the world and we wanted to show we could play on a par, which we managed to do. To get a victory like this against a team like that, in front of your own fans – it's something that will remain long in the memory."
Defender Neven Subotić reacts to the crucial victory against Madrid on matchday three