Sebastien Haller continued his superb run of form in Borussia Dortmund's 3-0 win at Augsburg on Matchday 33, netting twice to tee up a chance for a sensational title win should they beat Mainz on Saturday.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, goes the saying. While it would be wrong to single out any individual Dortmund player as the star of their title charge, few could begrudge Haller being a focus of attention if they lift the Meisterschale for the first time since 2012 with a win against Mainz on Matchday 34.
He has certainly saved his most significant contribution since his recovery from cancer to right when it was needed most. His two goals against Augsburg were Haller's second brace in consecutive matches and set his side up to overtake Bayern Munich on the final bend of the title race with a comprehensive 3-0 win.
Haller's opening goal was particularly significant, as he raced onto a botched clearance from Donyell Malen's cross to angle in a tidy low finish. He showed his poacher's instincts again in the 84th minute to bundle in a second after the ball was spilled at his feet, settling Dortmund nerves against an Augsburg side who had threatened to hit back, even with 10 men.
"I'm just proud and pleased for my team, as it's now in our own hands," a beaming Haller told bundesliga.com after the final whistle. "It wasn't an easy game, as we created lots of chances without scoring. We tried to stay patient and stick to our principles, and in the end we succeeded."
Watch: Haller speaks after 3-0 win in Augsburg sends Dortmund top
The brace against Augsburg came just a week after Haller shone in the Battle of the Borussias, which Dortmund dominated with four goals in the first 32 minutes. The 28-year-old's deflected shot was headed in by Malen for an early opener, before he won a penalty that Jude Bellingham converted. He then got on the scoresheet himself in spectacular fashion, turning in an outrageous flick from Malen's low cross.
Gladbach never recovered from Haller and Malen's first-half double act, even if strikes from Ramy Bensebaini and outgoing captain Lars Stindl lessened the sting of their third league defeat in four outings. BVB had the last laugh either way, with substitute Gio Reyna tapping in from close range to round out a comfortable afternoon at the Signal Iduna Park.
That had been the first time this season that Haller had netted in consecutive league games – after he grabbed Dortmund's second in their 6-0 demolition of Wolfsburg the previous week. The France-born Ivory Coast international now has an impressive nine goals and three assists in 18 appearances. Haller had been asked ahead of Matchday 33, which saw Bayern's loss against Leipzig present Dortmund with the chance to go top, just what it would mean to overhaul the record champions down the stretch.
"It would be unbelievable," he responded. "I'm always positive and you just say, 'Why not?'. Before I started being able to play for Dortmund, we were sixth, so of course you have other targets in mind. And now suddenly you are able to play for the title! I think we just need to be humble, grateful, and still work as we did in the last months and weeks, and then we will see."
Watch: Sebastien Haller on Dortmund's title hopes
Haller knows a thing or two about upsetting the odds, after all. His well-documented battle with testicular cancer kept him out of first-team action for the first six months of his Dortmund contract, but after two surgeries and four courses of chemotherapy, he returned as a substitute in the first game of 2023, a 4-3 win over Augsburg. A few weeks later, he showed he was truly back by notching his first goal for the club in a 5-1 dismissal of Freiburg, and it just so happened to arrive on 4 February – World Cancer Day.
"To score today was a great message to everyone who is fighting today or will fight later," he said, having had a defiant 'F*ck Cancer' slogan sewn into his boots for the occasion. "It gives some hope, some courage. That's it, you know? The days after will always be better."
They have certainly been better for Haller, who has featured in all 18 league assignments since that first Augsburg encounter. Yet the extent of what his body has been through is demonstrated by the fact that the reverse fixture on Matchday 33 was the first time he had played a full 90-minute game for BVB. Until then, he had generally made way for fellow striker Youssoufa Moukoko in the second half.
Haller, Malen and Karim Adeyemi have scored a combined 24 league goals in 2023, helping propel Dortmund to the top of the form charts – they have 11 points and 15 goals more than Bayern since the start of the calendar year, as well as the most prolific attack in Europe's top five leagues (56 goals). Yet remarkably, none of the three – for obvious reasons, in Haller's case – managed to find the target in the Bundesliga before the World Cup break.
"We suffered a lot of setbacks, with those three in particular," admitted BVB coach Edin Terzic. "Seb was out for the entire first half of the season, then Donny had a spell out after a really good DFB Cup game. Karim too. So they started the season with injuries and illnesses – and yet when you see how they're performing, and what they're capable of, it's hard to imagine that after 16 matchdays, Donny and Karim hadn't scored in the Bundesliga."
"We've adapted to each other, and you can see in the last few weeks that it's been working really well," Haller said of his two strike partners. "I'm really happy to have this connection with those two and the guys behind me."
Watch: Haller's road to recovery with Dortmund
This isn't the first time Haller has found himself at the sharp end of a Bundesliga attacking trident. Between 2017 and 2019 he was deployed alongside Luka Jovic and Ante Rebic at Eintracht Frankfurt, where he racked up 24 goals and 13 assists in 60 top-flight appearances. The trio helped the Eagles lift the DFB Cup in 2017/18 – with Haller contributing a team-high four goals – and then reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League in 2018/19.
Haller, Jovic and Rebic were nicknamed 'Die Büffelherde' (the 'buffalo herd') by teammate Kevin Trapp due to their imposing physical presence. Indeed, Haller finished both of his campaigns at Frankfurt having contested the second-highest number of challenges in the Bundesliga. In spite of his long absence he has also thrown himself back into the fray this season, winning an impressive 52 per cent of his challenges – a rarity among strikers.
Surprisingly for a player of his aerial prowess, the man from Ris-Orangis only counts three headers among his 33 Bundesliga goals. He has also had relatively few shots on goal this term (29), but clearly favours quality over quantity: 18 of those attempts have been on target (62 per cent), while almost one in three of them ended up in the back of the net (nine).
Haller's three years away from the Bundesliga were a mixed bag. He never fully settled in the English Premier League with West Ham, despite netting three times in his first three league appearances. But after leaving for Ajax midway through 2020/21 he rediscovered his mojo, banging in 13 goals in just 23 games to claim a league and cup double. In 2021/22 he was the Eredivisie's top marksman with 21 goals as Ajax successfully defended their title.
He also carved himself out a slice of UEFA Champions League history with the Dutch giants by becoming the first player to score in his first seven matches in the competition. That phenomenal run included a four-goal salvo on his debut at Sporting Lisbon, and goals home and away in wins over his future employers BVB.
The cancer diagnosis came only days after he joined Dortmund in summer 2022, but Haller appears to be very much back to his best.
He and the whole club will be desperately hoping to snatch their first Meisterschale in over a decade against Mainz, but his recent experiences have given him a healthy sense of perspective heading into the home straight.
"I'm just really happy to be on the pitch," he admitted. "To play with the guys, to live these moments and victories. It's really important, and I think this is also why we play."
The destiny of the title is now back in Dortmund's hands, and having already witnessed Haller's remarkable recovery, perhaps the BVB faithful will be treated to another miracle moment at the end of this crazy campaign - with Mainz the final obstacle between them and a truly memorable title win.
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