Borussia Dortmund's final game of 2016 was a 1-1 draw at home to FC Augsburg. During the calendar year, the Black and Yellows were unbeaten in 45 of their 50 matches in the UEFA Champions/Europa League, the DFB Cup and the Bundesliga, meaning they only suffered defeat on five occasions in 2016.
Yet nobody was content with the 1-1 draw against Augsburg. It was the seventh successive match in which BVB had fallen behind, but an equaliser – from Dembélé this time – meant that they had come back to at least draw on six of those occasions. With 16 of the club's 34 Bundesliga games now played, sporting director Michael Zorc described the situation as "neither satisfactory, nor worrying".
Two of those five defeats in 2016 came in Frankfurt, with Borussia also suffering losses in Liverpool, Leipzig and Leverkusen. The DFB Cup final, which ended in a 4-3 penalty shootout defeat against Bayern Munich, goes down in the record books as a draw rather than a defeat as the score was 0-0 after 120 minutes.
But let's focus on December, starting with the match against Borussia Mönchengladbach. Raffael fired the visitors into a sixth-minute lead, before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rounded off a fine move involving Ousmane Dembélé and Marco Reus to restore parity just 59 seconds later. The latter pair played a decisive role in all the other goals too: Marc Bartra flicked on Dembélé's corner to Lukasz Piszczek, who headed the Black and Yellows into a 2-1 lead after 16 minutes, before Dembélé made it 3-1 after being set up by Reus (64). Then the Frenchman picked out Reus, who backheeled the ball into Aubameyang's path for the Gabon international to make it four (68).
Consistently falling behind but showing spirit to battle back
Next up in the league were two away outings, but Borussia Dortmund's hopes of a third away victory of the season were dashed by 1. FC Köln and TSG Hoffenheim respectively. Reus struck in the dying seconds to salvage a point in Cologne and, although Mario Götze quickly levelled at 1-1 in Sinsheim, the Black and Yellows were ultimately punished by two poor refereeing decisions: Sandro Wagner's push on Bender in the build-up to TSG's second goal and Reus' first-ever red card on the stroke of half-time. Despite the difficult circumstances, Aubameyang equalised at 2-2 shortly after the break thanks to Dembélé's second assist of the night.
The next match, this time in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, was to end in the same scoreline as the Westphalians secured top spot in a group that included the reigning champions, Sporting Lisbon and Legia Warsaw. Pole position for BVB was, in the words of Real coach Zinedine Zidane, "deserved".
"Unsatisfactory" in Germany, "perfect performance" in Europe
BVB did not let their heads drop, even when Karim Benzema put the hosts 2-0 up in the 53rd minute. They remained disciplined and were ultimately rewarded when Julian Weigl played a perfect pass in behind the defence to Marcel Schmelzer, who set up Aubameyang for a tap in – 2-1 (60). Between the 69th and 79th minutes, the Black and Yellows rode their luck a bit and had Roman Weidenfeller to thank for keeping them in the game as Real went into the ascendancy. But it was Borussia who delivered the crucial blow through Marco Reus, whose equalising goal was set up by great switch play from substitute Emre Mor and a cross from Aubameyang. Never before had a team scored 21 goals in their six UEFA Champions League group games. "It was a perfect performance," said Hans-Joachim Watzke, who continued: "The fact that we came out on top against the best team in the world gained us an incredible amount of prestige internationally."
Soon came the draw for the last 16 in Nyon, Switzerland. Over 53 years have passed since Borussia Dortmund and Benfica squared off in the last 16 of the European Cup, but the two teams are finally set to meet again. The 5-0 victory in the return leg at the Rote Erde stadium back in 1963 went down in club history as the "match of the century". "Benfica are a big name in international football and clearly the strongest team in Portugal. But we also have a good chance of getting through," said Hans-Joachim Watzke of the draw.