Reliving Borussia Dortmund's logic-defying 1997 UEFA Champions League win
From patchy domestic form to a swathe of injuries and possible army prison for one of their stars, it's safe to say first-timers Borussia Dortmund were up against it when they took on reigning champions Juventus in the 1997 UEFA Champions League final.
After ended a 32-year wait for a German championship by lifting the 1994/95 Meisterschale, Ottmar Hitzfeld's side clinched back-to-back Bundesliga titles by defending their crown the subsequent year.
A Germany side littered with Dortmund talent would then go on to win the 1996 UEFA European Championship and, having already built a stellar side that included the likes of captain Matthias Sammer, Stephane Chapuisat, Jürgen Kohler, Lars Ricken, Karl-Heinz Riedle and Michael Zorc, Hitzfeld set about adding yet more quality to build on Dortmund's domestic dominance in pursuit of conquering the continent.
And so, ahead of the 1996/97 campaign, in came Wolfgang Feiersinger, Paul Lambert, Rene Schneider and Paulo Sousa, who would all play significant roles in a European success that few predicted.
Watch: A dream couple: Hitzfeld and Chapuisat
After all, Dortmund as a club had competed in just three European Cup campaigns and were knocked out of the 1995/96 Champions League - their first entry since the tournament's rebranding in 1992 - in the quarter-finals.
Things were made even more difficult over the course of a season dotted with injuries to influential figures.
Sousa and Brazil centre-back Julio Cesar would feature in just 15 of Dortmund's 47 games in all competitions, Riedle and Sammer played less than half of those matches, while knee surgery ruled Steffen Freund out for almost the entirety of the season.
"We had to improvise constantly because someone was out injured. We lost starters every week," former Dortmund midfielder - and UEFA Cup winner with Juventus in 1993 - Andreas Möller told the club's website in the build-up to the 25th anniversary of Dortmund's European glory.
"With these serious injury issues, success in the league was out of the question."
Indeed it was and, despite leading the Bundesliga table on Matchday 23, those injuries took their toll on a stretched squad and a run of just five wins in their final 12 league matches saw Dortmund finish the season in third place.
Unable to maintain their domestic form, Hitzfeld's outfit did continue to flourish in Europe and it's fair to say that balancing both always meant one would suffer, considering the revolving door of players entering the club's treatment room.
The steady Champions League progress was consistent throughout, with Borussia collecting four wins out of six in Group B as they finished runners-up on goal difference to Atletico Madrid in Group C.
A 4-1 aggregate win over French outfit Auxerre in the last eight was then made to look routine as first Riedle, Schneider and Möller helped secure a 3-1 win at the Westfalenstadion before Ricken clinched a 1-0 victory in France.
"It's great how the team overcomes all setbacks," said Hitzfeld after the first leg and added of Ricken after the second: "That's a real Dortmund lad who rolls up his sleeves when it counts."
This was the hallmark of Dortmund's remarkable run to the trophy and, with English giants Manchester United awaiting in the semi-finals, Hitzfeld's team again had to dig deep.
Sammer was suspended for the first leg in Dortmund, while the hosts were also missing Cesar and Kohler in defence, as well as Chapuisat and Riedle in attack.
A reshuffle was required, with Heiko Herrlich starting in attack despite a torn ligament in his shoulder, Rene Tretschok coming in on the left and Steffen Reuter handed the armband and deployed as a sweeper in place of Sammer.
"It was eerily quiet. Before a Bundesliga match, there was always a joke or two. This time it was different. You could tell everything was at stake," Tretschok told bvb.com. "Every player - no matter what they've been through - was fully focused."
None more so than Tretschok who went on to hit the winner as a depleted Dortmund ensured they went to Manchester with the tie in their favour.
One man that nearly didn't make the flight to England was Kohler, who was reported to have an illness but had in fact just suffered a family tragedy on the day Dortmund boarded the plane to the U.K..
"That was the day we lost our child. If my wife hadn't said: 'Go there and play', I would never have been in Manchester.”
Not only did Kohler make the trip at the behest of his wife, Silke, but he delivered a man of the match performance in the process.
His last-ditch heroics denied a United front line of Eric Cantona, Andy Cole and Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer, with a peak-of-his-powers Cantona particularly frustrated by the left boot of Kohler from just three yards out and with the goal at his mercy.
"That was pure luck. Cantona normally would score in a deep sleep, but at that moment he shoots exactly where I lift my foot," reflected an always humble Kohler of an emotionally-charged evening.
"I was in the right position three times in Manchester; everything fell into place.”
Hitzfeld was more emphatic after the match, one that Dortmund won courtesy of Ricken's eighth-minute strike.
"Without Kohler, I don't think we would have been able to hold our own here," said Hitzfeld at the time.
"We have clearly exceeded expectations. Huge credit especially to those players who are not always part of the squad, but who have risen above themselves over the course of this competition. Without them we wouldn't have made it."
Hitzfeld was right to acknowledge the reliability of his squad, especially those on the fringes.
Against all logic, they had reached their first Champions League final and set up a showdown with Juventus at Munich's Olympiastadion, no less - that just happened to be the home of fierce rivals Bayern Munich.
And things wouldn't suddenly begin to be straightforward now they were in the showpiece.
There were injury concerns over Herrlich, Kohler, Möller, Reuter, Sammer and Sousa, while Freund had barely kicked a ball all season.
Then there was Ricken.
Not only did he suffer a motorbike crash two weeks prior to the final, but the Germany international - who was at the time serving in a German army barracks in Ahlen twice a week - was also staring at the prospect of spending the night of the final in a cell.
"Even for the quarters and semi-finals, I needed special leave from the Bundeswehr [Federal Defence]," said Ricken. "They were not impressed. And my sergeant major was a Schalke fan."
That his commanding officer was from the other side of the Revierderby was the least of his worries.
"I needed four days off to play the final," he recalled. "The weekend before, I forgot to lock my locker and my firearms card was in there.
"They wanted to put me in a military prison for three days for that. I had to tell them: 'I can't – we're playing Juve in the Champions League.' So, I had to do some night shifts afterwards to make up for it."
Ricken would go on to serve his country in style that night, scoring one of the most memorable goals in Champions League history. But he would do so from the bench as Hitzfeld had the tricky task of selecting a starting XI from the patchwork sides that had gotten them to the final.
In the end, Hitzfeld had the rare luxury of an almost fully-fit team to chose from, meaning Feiersinger missed out entirely from the 16-man squad and Ricken was joined by Herrlich, Tretschok and Herrlich as the outfield players on the bench, alongside back-up goalkeeper Wolfgang de Beer.
In the Juve ranks, coach Marcello Lippi had stars such as Didier Deschamps, Christian Vieri and Zinedine Zidane in his side and a young Alessandro Del Piero in reserve.
And it was the Old Lady of Italian football that began the brightest, with Zidane dictating the early running until Lambert and Sousa made a crucial switch in the Dortmund midfield.
"The first 20 minutes were really tough for us," Sousa told Sky Sports. "Juventus pushed us. I took one decision on the pitch with Paul Lambert. We decided that he would take care of Zidane and I would take care of the rest of the midfield. It worked. It had a big impact."
Lambert added: "We spoke during the game to change it. The two of us looked at it. Zidane was playing on the other side to where I was. Paulo and I switched it because that allowed Paulo the freedom to do what he wanted to do. It gave me the role that I was used to doing."
The result was a Lambert masterclass in restricting Zidane's involvement, while Dortmund were able to impose themselves on the game and race into a 2-0 first-half lead thanks to Riedle's brace.
Del Piero pulled one back for the Italians but Ricken, on as a 70th-minute sub, would seal the win with his first touch of the game - lifting the ball over Angelo Peruzzi just 16 seconds after entering the fold.
"From the bench, I saw that Peruzzi was standing really far out of his goal all the time and I came on, thinking: if you get the ball, shoot it at the goal straight away," said Ricken.
"It's crazy that the situation then developed exactly as it did and that was actually the best chance to do it. And it only came about because the guy marking me left me and tried to pressure Andy [Möller] instead. If he doesn't do that, that goal doesn't go in!"
But it did, ensuring Dortmund made history on that famous night in Munich on 28 May 1997 as Die Schwarzgelben defied the longest of footballing odds.
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