Each summer, important farewells are anticipated at Borussia Dortmund. The trick, as the club’s executives have learnt, sometimes painfully, is to try to make the welcomes compensate. A trophy at the end of what has often seemed a gruelling season would be very welcome indeed for Dortmunders.
Saturday’s German Cup final, against Eintracht Frankfurt, gives Dortmund the chance to lift a major prize for the first time in five years. That seems a long time given Dortmund’s status as the second most powerful club in Germany, and among the most admired in Europe. But being next-best in the Bundesliga of a Bayern Munich in such a mechanically efficient period of domestic supremacy means harsh privations. Playing catch-up to Bayern can be exhausting and Dortmund have been at it, playing a very intense sort of football, since their domestic double of 2012.
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The loud, loyal, numerous members of the so-called Yellow Wall, the fans who stand — they seldom sit — behind the goal at the Westfalen arena and who will take their noise and colour to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, will be looking for signals of whose farewells are imminent come the final whistle. They will scrutinise Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for indications about whether or not he suspects this is his last match for Dortmund before taking his speed and assured finishing to one of the many alternative employers who covet him. Aubameyang ended his league campaign as the Bundesliga’s leading scorer. The last Dortmund striker to claim that honour, Robert Lewandowski, promptly skipped south to Bayern.
Bayern have come to resemble a pugnacious bailiff in Dortmund’s eyes. It was Mario Gotze in 2013, Lewandowski in 2014, and last summer, the defender Mats Hummels who all swapped yellow jerseys for what they understood to be a greater chance of regular gold medals in Bavaria. Although Gotze came back 10 months ago, his effect has been hampered by injury and illness.
Happily for Dortmund, other recruits during what might have been a debilitating summer of 2016 departures — Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan both left for Manchester, for City and United, respectively — have shown the cub’s talent for reinvestment remains sound.
Ousmane Dembele, the young France winger, was a shrewd capture, and a player whose assets seem suited to Dortmund’s counter-attacking strengths. Andre Shurrle, brought in last summer, has had his moments, and manager Thomas Tuchel is pleased Schurrle has declared himself fit for the final.
To report that Tuchel is pleased about everything right now would be inaccurate. The manager, 43, has been in the job two years, and handled the transition from Jurgen Klopp’s long period in charge ably. But he was frustrated that all three of Hummels, Gondogan and Mkhitaryan left at the same time and he said so.
His relationship with long-serving chief-executive Hans-Joachim Watzke seemed strained then. After further disagreements over recruitment, it has worsened. Watzke’s weighted remarks about the need for “trust” across the management of the club have echoed through the preparations for the final.
The cracks in the relationship were visible in the traumatic aftermath of the horrific events ahead of Dortmund’s uefa Champions League quarter-final against Monaco. A bomb exploded next to the team bus as the players headed from their hotel to the Westfalen for the first leg. Mercifully, there were no fatalities, but the defender Marc Bartra was hospitalised because of injuries to his wrist and arm.
Tuchel felt the decision to play the fixture the following day was too soon. Some of his players, several of them visibly uneasy on the pitch in the defeat to Monaco, agreed. Tuchel indicated he had not been sufficiently consulted.
That incident may very well have affected Dortmund’s progress in Europe. It is to Tuchel’s credit that Dortmund went on to finish third in the league, securing group-stage access to next season’s Champions League. Their status as the next-best-after-Bayern in Germany has been bullishly challenged, though, by league runners-up, ambitious RB Leipzig.
And they are believed to be preparing for a new head coach. The Dortmunders in Berlin today will be looking out at the body language of Tuchel, whose achievements over the last two years with Dortmund guarantee he will be in demand, for signs of an imminent goodbye from him. And they will warmly cheer Bartra, back in action again and all but certain to play a part today.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK — Massimo Maccarone, Empoli
Empoli striker Massimo Maccarone
One last relegation place is to be settled on this, the last weekend of the Serie A season. Empoli, 17th, can guarantee survival by achieving, at relegated Palermo, an equal or better result than Crotone, a point beneath them. Amid the tension, they are grateful for the experienced Massimo Maccarone.
Scourge of Sicilians
Massimo Maccarone loves playing against Palermo. Of his 194 career goals, spread across Italy and a spell in the English Premier League, nine have been scored against the Sicily club, more than any other opponent. Palermo used to be home to Maccarone, too, one of several in his long career.
Two decades at the top
Maccarone began his professional career at AC Milan, where, 20 years ago this weekend, he made his first senior appearance, in a friendly, for the club. He came on against Treviso as a substitute for the great Roberto Baggio and scored. The next year he was loaned out to Modena in Serie C1, Italian football’s third tier.
The poacher of Prato
That was one of a series of loans and part-ownership deals with clubs in the lower divisions. Maccarone made his name as a finisher at Prato, with 20 goals in a Serie C2 season. Milan cashed in, and sold him to Empoli, whom he helped gained promotion to Serie A. He won the first of his two Italy caps while still playing in Serie B.
At 22, Maccarone moved to England, and Middlesbrough, where over four years, he became instantly recognised for his shaved head and remembered for late goals, scored from the bench, that drove Boro into the 2006 Uefa Cup final, where they lost to Sevilla. At Boro, there would be ups and downs. The Italian later reflected he ought to have waited until he was older to move abroad.
Several clubs would find a matured Maccarone’s determined leading of the forward line a reliable asset. After a successful half season on loan at Siena, that club took him on for four more top-flight campaigns. He reached the age of 30, and he kept scoring. There was a season at Palermo, which featured more goals in European competition, two seasons at Sampdoria. And then he returned to Empoli, the club which, a decade earlier, he had steered into Serie A.
They re-hired Maccarone when he was 32. Three years later he was again helping them up from Serie B. Three seasons on from that promotion, he is still there, a local icon, chipping in with goals to gain the crucial points that have kept Empoli the right side of the drop-zone. The veteran hopes he can play a part in another survival story tomorrow.
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