Winner of nine senior titles in three different countries, Axel Witsel thought he’d seen it all. That was until he came chasing domestic silverware for a seventh time with Borussia Dortmund in his debut Bundesliga season.
It’s safe to say Witsel has ticked a lot of the boxes on any professional’s Bundesliga wishlist in his first season in Germany. Match-winning goals, victory in Der Klassiker and a chance at glory with the title race heading into the final matchday for the first time since the 2009/10 campaign.
"One day you’re sad because you made mistakes, the next day you’re happy because we can still be champions. So yeah, the Bundesliga is crazy," he told bundesliga.com.
Heading into the penultimate round of fixtures four points adrift of Bayern after letting a two-goal lead slip in Bremen, Lucien Favre’s charges repaired some of the damage, beating Fortuna Düsseldorf 3-2 on home soil.
Like BVB’s league campaign, the victory over Fortuna was a wild ride with its fair share of heart-in-mouth moments, especially in the minutes that followed Mario Götze’s pearler to make it 3-1.
"Of course we could’ve done better," admitted Witsel. "It’s true that it’s the end of the season and we’ve played a lot of games, but it’s not an excuse to concede a goal like, for example, the second one today."
"We also try to play nice, tiki-taka, beautiful football, but in the end what matters is getting the three points. We’re happy, because we’re still in the race. This is what matters to the fans and to the club."
With Bayern’s lead at the Bundesliga summit cut to two points going into Matchday 34, it’s all to play for in a pressure cooker of a title race. Neither side will have it easy against top-four hopefuls, though.
"Now we need to rest because it was a long day and then give everything we have in the last game. For us it won’t be easy against Gladbach, but the same goes for Bayern against Frankfurt because they are in the fight for the Champions League. They need to win in the last game. Every game is hard."
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After joining Dortmund from Chinese club Tianjin in the summer, Witsel talked about "missing the top level". His return has been emphatic. Embedded in an outfit looking to produce vibrant attacking football, the 101-time Belgium international had to sharpen his defensive approach to proceedings.
More importantly, the 30-year-old settled into a leadership role within a youthful squad. The road has been rocky at times for both club and player in his first Bundesliga campaign, but it could still have the fairy-tale ending.
"We have to just focus on our game and hope Bayern lose," Witsel continued. "It’s the first time I’ve experienced a title race like this."
For a player with 616 appearances to his name for club and country who has also won titles in Belgium, Portugal and Russia, those words hold significant weight.
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