The Numbers Game: Can Dortmund deny Bellingham and Madrid?

By Sports Desk May 31, 2024

The biggest game of the European club season is upon us, as Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid face off for the Champions League trophy at Wembley Stadium.

It's fair to say Edin Terzic's side were not expected to get this far, particularly when they were drawn into a tough group containing Paris Saint-Germain, Milan and Newcastle United.

However, they passed that test with flying colours before seeing off PSV, Atletico Madrid and PSG – for a second time – to book their ticket to Wembley, where they suffered final heartache against Bayern Munich 11 years ago.

Madrid, on the other hand, always expect to feature in this game.

They have had to do things the hard way this term, coming from behind in heavyweight ties against Manchester City and Bayern to emerge as favourites for a record-extending 15th European crown.

Jude Bellingham has been their talisman in his first season after leaving Dortmund, being crowned LaLiga's Player of the Season after leading Los Blancos to their 36th domestic title.

Few would bet against him having a decisive impact upon his return to England on Saturday.

The game will also represent a swansong for two iconic figures in German football, as Marco Reus prepares to leave Dortmund after 12 years and Toni Kroos plays the final game of his glittering club career.

Two DFB-Pokal wins are all Reus has to show for his distinguished spell with BVB, having also missed Germany's 2014 World Cup win due to injury. Kroos, on the other hand, could cap his career with a record-equalling sixth European crown, with his first coming with Bayern against Dortmund.

Whoever lifts the trophy, expect emotional scenes. 

What's expected?

Unsurprisingly, given their continental pedigree, Real Madrid enter Saturday's showpiece game as favourites, with the Opta supercomputer giving them a 55.6 per cent chance of victory inside 90 minutes.

Dortmund are assigned just a 21.4 per cent chance of claiming the trophy within regulation time, with 23 per cent of simulations seeing the final go to extra time and potentially penalties.

This will be Madrid's 18th appearance in a European Cup or Champions League final, with their 17 previous finals already the most of any club. They have lifted the trophy on 14 of those 17 appearances.

Dortmund, meanwhile, are making just their third appearance in a Champions League final, having overcome Juventus 3-1 in 1997 before losing 2-1 to Bayern in 2013. This will be the first Champions League final between a Spanish team and a German team since 2002, when Los Blancos overcame Bayer Leverkusen 2-1.

 

Only Man City (28) have bettered Madrid's 26 goals in this season's edition of the Champions League, while only City (25.1) and PSG (24.9) have topped their total of 24.3 expected goals (xG). Dortmund rank seventh for goals scored (17) and eighth for xG (15.2), with both finalists outperforming their underlying attacking metrics in the competition, Dortmund by 1.8 and Madrid by 1.7.

It is at the other end where BVB might have been a little fortunate. Their average of 1.9 expected goals against (xGA) per Champions League game in 2023-24 is the highest of any team to progress beyond the group stage, and they have been indebted to goalkeeper Gregor Kobel. 

According to Opta's expected goals on target (xGoT) model, he has prevented 7.1 goals in the Champions League this term, conceding seven times from 14.1 xGoT faced. Madrid, meanwhile, have conceded 15 times from 15.6 xGA.  

Sancho to cap underdog story?

When Jadon Sancho was unceremoniously exiled from the Manchester United squad by Erik ten Hag last September, few would have expected to see him play in European football's biggest game within the same season. 

Sancho was initially slow to get going upon his loan return to the Westfalenstadion in January, but he has found his feet in recent months, particularly in Europe.

The winger produced a talismanic display in the first leg of Dortmund's semi-final triumph over PSG and has completed 25 dribbles across his six Champions League appearances this season.

That is the most by any player in the knockout stages of a single edition of the tournament since Neymar recorded 32 for losing finalists PSG in 2019-20.

Should Sancho inspire Terzic's men to victory, it will go down as one of the greatest comeback stories in recent memory.

Moreover, having finished fifth in the Bundesliga, Dortmund will be the second-lowest ranked German team to ever compete in a European Cup/Champions League final, after Bayern won the 1974-75 edition while finishing 10th domestically. 

Fans of an underdog story will be right behind Sancho and Dortmund on Saturday.

 

Is Madrid's name on the trophy?

When Carlo Ancelotti led Madrid to their most recent European crown in 2021-22, it sometimes felt like a greater force was at work.

Los Blancos came from behind in three successive knockout ties against PSG, Chelsea and City, pulling off increasingly unlikely rescue acts to reach the showpiece game in Paris, where Thibaut Courtois' heroics set the stage for Vinicius Junior to down Liverpool.

There has been a greater degree of control about Madrid this season, but their European aura certainly remains intact. 

Madrid have only trailed for 7.5 per cent of their total game time in the Champions League this season (90 minutes out of 1,200), the lowest percentage of any side. 

They have, however, fought back to win four matches in which they've been behind in the competition this term, with only Barcelona in 1999-00 and Madrid themselves in 2016-17 (five each) having more comeback wins in a single edition.

The most memorable of those saw Joselu's late brace dump Bayern Munich out in the semi-finals, but they also had to hold firm to keep RB Leipzig and City at bay in their previous knockout ties.

Teams are advised to play the game rather than the occasion, but Madrid often find something extra when it matters most in a tournament they regard as their own.

PREVIOUS MEETING

The teams last faced each other in the Champions League in 2017-18, with Los Blancos winning both games in the group stage, triumphing 3-1 away and 3-2 at home.

Neither side has previously managed to win three straight European games against the other, though.

Dortmund did memorably overcome Madrid en route to their last Champions League final in 2013, with Robert Lewandowski scoring all four goals in a 4-1 first-leg triumph before they held on in the second leg, a 2-0 defeat sending them through 4-3 on aggregate. 

However, BVB have only won three of their 14 previous Champions League meetings with Madrid overall, drawing five and losing six.  

Among teams they have faced at least five times in the competition, only against City (17 per cent) do they have a lower win percentage than versus Madrid (21 per cent).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Borussia Dortmund: Mats Hummels 

Dortmund have had to stand firm in the face of pressure en route to the final, and if they are to overcome the might of Madrid, another solid rearguard action will be required.

Hummels has not missed a single minute of Champions League football this season, and he could become the first outfielder to be ever-present for the eventual winners since Cristiano Ronaldo for Madrid in 2017-18.

Like departing team-mate Reus, he could appear in his second Champions League final 11 years on from his first. Juventus icon Gianluigi Buffon (12 years between 2003 and 2015) was the last player to appear in two showpiece games with a longer wait between them.

Real Madrid: Jude Bellingham

Who else but former Dortmund star Bellingham?

The England international has earned a reputation as a player for the big occasions this season, and few would bet against him having a decisive impact against his old club at Wembley.

He has created more chances while under pressure (19) than any other midfielder in this season's Champions League, with four of those resulting in assists. The only player to provide more assists while under pressure from at least one opposition player in the 2023-24 tournament is Dortmund's Marcel Sabitzer (five).

Just as importantly, Bellingham never shirks his off-the-ball work. He has made the most high-intensity pressures of any player in the 2023-24 Champions League overall (572) and in the knockout stages specifically (344).

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