Dortmund win galactic battle
On my last visit to the Veltins-Arena this season, Darth Vader and several stormtroopers were stationed outside, waging a promotional battle on behalf of the Empire - and George Lucas' pension fund - on Schalke fans. At Saturday's Revierderby, even the Lord of the Sith would have been a more popular visitor than Jurgen Klopp, the man the blue-and-white half of the Ruhr Valley consider their very own leader of the Dark Side.
To say Klopp, and anyone connected to Dortmund, is unwelcome in Gelsenkirchen is an understatement. On Saturday morning, a group of Schalke fans daubed the turnstiles at the visitors' entrance to the stadium with pigs' blood. As messages go, it was unambiguous. The game itself is known as the 'mother of all derbies', though the only maternal figure who embodies the feelings sweeping through this football match is Biffa Bacon's mum.
The fact Schalke started the derby in a creditable third place while Dortmund were top did little to alleviate the animosity. Benedikt Howedes, Schalke's talented captain and versatile defender, said pre-match that the game "wasn't a question of ruining Dortmund's title". The Germany international spent the derby on the sidelines with gastric flu, and it seemed that the vast majority of those who joined him in witnessing the spectacle from the terraces were not of the same opinion.
The deafening whistles that accompanied the Dortmund players onto the pitch and then provided the soundtrack to the announcement of their starting line-up were sufficiently significant to suggest local hearing aid companies may do a roaring trade in the coming days. The Dortmund-shirt-wearing inflatable reproduction of Munch's 'The Scream' - held up by a more-bourgeois-than-average Schalke fan - mimicked the action taken by any sane person inside the stadium.
But while Dortmund in general are despised - they are rarely mentioned by name in Gelsenkirchen - the greatest vitriol is reserved for Kevin Grosskreutz. Dortmund-born, the Germany midfielder is persona non grata in Gelsenkirchen after a litany of undiplomatic, unflattering outbursts. Before the derby, a roaring trade was done in T-shirts adorned with a Schalke-clad Homer Simpson throttling a Bart Simpson/Grosskreutz-a-like with the player's name deliberately misspelled 'Grosskotz' ('big puke').
When Grosskreutz's name was read out by the stadium announcer before kick-off, there was a even a malevolent surge from Schalke's most fanatical followers on the Nordkurve towards the Dortmund player's picture on the big screen suspended high above the pitch. Grosskreutz would have the last laugh, though, as Klopp allowed the Schalke fans' favourite pantomime villain the opportunity to revel in the hate when he was substituted a minute from time with derby bragging rights in the bag and the Bundesliga title just about ready to drop in to join them.
The substitution of the man they love to hate was the only reason for the Schalke fans to get excited in a damp squib of a last 20 minutes, with their side having all but given up hope of pooping Dortmund's title party, or "spitting in their soup" as Klopp so indelicately put it pre-match. The reason they failed to do so was more of their own doing, however, than that of their habitually untenable opponents.
Clearly drained by their exertions in beating Bayern Munich on Wednesday to all but sew up the title, Dortmund lacked the zip and verve that has seen them devastatingly shred teams domestically in the last two seasons. "If there's a game we could play tomorrow, it's the derby," Klopp had said after the win over Bayern. Not on this evidence, they couldn't. Any scout from an English Premier League club watching Shinji Kagawa would have been far from impressed, while Robert Lewandowski - the slayer of the Bayern beast in midweek - lumbered ineffectually. Only once, early on, did Dortmund look anything like the Dortmund that will soon be back-to-back German champions, but Lars Unnerstall saved Sven Bender's hurried effort.
No, for once, Schalke defended effectively. It was at the other end that they faltered, with the chief culprit most surprisingly being Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The Dutchman, who has scored 43 goals in 44 competitive games this season, volleyed over and missed another opportunity he would normally have expected to tuck away before he - and his team - fizzled out to end the game as flat as his native Netherlands.
It was not the grandstand finish you would expect of a side whose starting XI was announced with the Rocky theme tune blaring through the stadium sound system. They did, however, go toe-to-toe with their arch-rivals, and took the lead through a Jefferson Farfan strike that deflected off Kagawa's head. With Jermaine Jones all snarling aggression, jailhouse tattoos, and - at times - eye-opening creativity in central midfield, Schalke might have expected to hold onto their lead only for Lukasz Piszczek, Dortmund's ex-midfielder-turned-right-back, to crash in a brilliant half-volley on the turn from an acute angle with his left foot to equalise. It was a moment where everyone in the stadium, including Piszczek, stopped for a second to take in what had just happened before the mayhem resumed.
Lewandowski missed an opportunity to level, but former Dortmund hero Christoph Metzelder, part of the club's 2002 title-winning side, helped them out, unwittingly chesting down a corner for his former team-mate, Sebastian Kehl, to poke home and keep Klopp's side on course to emulate the Ottmar Hitzfeld vintage of the mid-1990s, who defended the title in '95 and '96.
The Dortmund players certainly celebrated as if they had done so, with who else but Grosskreutz leading the jollity. A large, seemingly masochistic section of the Nordkurve remained rooted to their places, seemingly unable to drag themselves away from what was for them a grotesque scene. The vigourous manner in which they waved large flags throughout the 90 minutes and more suggests they could have the consolation of being gainfully employed during the upcoming Olympic Games opening ceremony.
A couple of weeks after the Games in London end, Dortmund will start their 2012-13 campaign, and most likely as champions. "No-one's ever asked that question before" was the initial part of Klopp's response when asked in Gelsenkirchen if the title race was over. "No" was the concluding section of the answer. Cue much hilarity in the press conference room.
"We've got a good example," Klopp pointed out cheekily, referring to how Schalke, who had seemingly claimed their first Bundesliga title in 2000-01, saw Bayern snatch it from them with a goal in the fourth minute of added time on the final day of the season. With three games left to play, and Dortmund eight points clear and with a cosy armchair of a run-in, no-one is going to be doing that to Klopp.