In another context and another time, this would have been a day of celebration at the Merkur-Spiel Arena, with the home side Fortuna Düsseldorf wearing all-white shirts in commemoration of the club’s 125th birthday. With the now-familiar cries and exhortations from the bench echoing around the empty stadium, growing increasingly anxious as the afternoon ticked by and the stakes rose, it certainly wasn’t the occasion they once dreamed of.
And in another context this would have been a creditable fighting display – a typical, brave-but-doomed Fortuna hard luck story, as they flirted with victory against vaunted Borussia Dortmund only to have the consolation of a point snatched away when Erling Braut Haaland magicked an undeserved winning goal out of the blue in the dying seconds of stoppage time.
On a Monday morning on which tourist flights from Düsseldorf bound for the many German-catered resorts in Mallorca set off for the first time in three months, there will be little party mood among the city’s fans. We have not yet reached the point of inquests but with Wednesday night’s trip to RB Leipzig looming large the coach Uwe Rösler has work to do in lifting the spirits of players who gave everything against Dortmund but were visibly crushed at full-time.
On the bright side, he has had practice. Fortuna are serial fritterers of leads, dropping 24 points from winning positions this season, and the scenes of desolation on Saturday were reminiscent of those at the conclusion of the draw at Köln three weeks ago, when a polished performance saw them into the 89th minute of the match with a two-goal lead yet they made the short trip back up the A57 with only a point. To their coach’s immense credit, they came from a goal down to defeat Schalke three days later.
This is Rösler’s first appointment in the Bundesliga, nearly 15 years into his coaching career, and he is clearly relishing it despite stewarding a sidewho have some deep-seated bad old habits. There has been an upturn in performances since he swapped striving for the top with Malmö for staving off the drop when he replaced Friedhelm Funkel in January. In 12 Bundesliga games under Rösler, they have lost only three, to Bayern Munich, Borussia Mönchengladbach and now Dortmund. They have, however, only won twice in that time, wasting a two-goal lead against Köln and even a 3-0 advantage against Hertha Berlin.
“They played excellently,” said Rösler’s opposite number, Lucien Favre. “They are very well organised. Compliments to my colleague. But that’s football, unfortunately in this case for Düsseldorf.” Fortuna followers have become sick of hearing words like them. “There they were again, these sentences,” wrote Patrick Scherer of Rheinische Post. “These sentences that you can no longer hear at Fortuna.”
While Rösler’s work can be largely admired, Fortuna’s board is under the microscope. It made the big call in dumping the popular Funkel, and only avoiding relegation will really endorse it. “I can’t understand this decision,” he had said to journalists on the day of his dismissal, “but I will respect it.”
The 66-year-old subsequently described his goodbye to the players “as emotional [a moment] as I have ever experienced in my career” – and it was a long career. Leaving Fortuna brought the curtain down on a coaching journey stretching back 30 years and which saw him reach his 500th Bundesliga game in October.
Funkel had a tough hand to play as well, losing two good forwards in Dodi Lukebakio, who returned to Watford before being transferred on to Hertha, and Benito Raman, sold to Schalke. Without a surprisingly prolific season from Rouwen Hennings – with 14 league goals to date – Fortuna would have been sunk a while ago. Still, the removal of Funkel – who was only given a contract extension before Christmas 2018 after significant public pressure – seemed the culmination of lukewarm feeling towards him at board level.
Like Funkel, Rösler has been making do with a squad scraped together by some handy dealing from the club’s former director of football Lutz Pfannenstiel, but they are creating enough chances to win most games without taking them. Dortmund’s lethargy made Fortuna braver as the second-half minutes ticked by on Saturday and there would have been delicious irony in the substitute Steven Skrzybski, loaned from BVB’s rival Schalke, scoring the late winner to which he came so close on two occasions, striking the frame of the goal each time.
The tension had been rising. At Paderborn, Werder Bremen were not just beating the home side but chipping away at the goal difference advantage of Rösler’s side. They ended up with a 5-1 victory to move level on points with Fortuna and within one of their goal difference.
Still, hope remains. Leipzig have made a habit of dropping home points to inferior opposition, and Fortuna are sufficiently well-organised under Rösler to be capable of causing them frustration. Then they host Augsburg and visit Union Berlin in their last two games, both now all but safe after wins at Mainz (who are still fully in the mix at the bottom) and Köln respectively.
Rösler declared himself speechless after the Dortmund defeat, a state in which his charges have left him a little too often. Now it’s time for those players to say it on their coach’s behalf.
• Anyone using the old expression Bayern-Dusel (lucky Bayern) on this season’s evidence would have a cheek – the football they have played under Hansi Flick has been largely phenomenal and they have shown grit too, edging past Borussia Mönchengladbach on Saturday evening with Leon Goretzka’s late winner. It all means that victory at relegation-threatened (and hopeless at home) Werder Bremen will be enough for an eighth successive title. They have had the fortune to face the best of the rest in recent weeks with various names either compromised by injury (Jadon Sancho) or entirely absent (Kai Havertz) but made light of two huge absences of their own this week, as the suspended Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller both sat out.
• Gladbach had more of the play, and chances, than an away team can expect at Bayern but – without the suspended Alassane Pléa and Marcus Thuram, forced off injured after 10 minutes – they failed to make the most of their opportunities, and Leverkusen’s draw at Schalke on Sunday saw them drop out of the top four. “The air is getting thinner for our big goal,” admitted the coach Marco Rose, with three games left to win back what most feel would be a merited place in the top four.
• Leverkusen missed a chance to make it even tougher for Gladbach. “We generally played poorly today,” said Peter Bosz, “especially in possession”, but in truth Die Werkself were also outfought by a Schalke side now winless in 13 in the Bundesliga but full of young vigour, with Ahmed Kutucu finally chosen up front and the 19-year-old midfielder Can Bozdogan making a highly promising debut.