"If Borussia Dortmund get through the group, they're candidates to win the tournament."
José Mourinho's messages always come loaded with extra meaning and this one, delivered on Monday night, was no exception. Ever since the draw for the Champions League groups was made he has insisted that Group D was a proper group, unlike other groups in which "other teams" play. Other teams, for the uninitiated, is Mourinho's shorthand for Barcelona.
On Tuesday night he called Madrid's 2-2 draw with the German champions a "great game", adding: "As I fan I would prefer to see a game like this than the games in some other groups that are like Europa League games." He has not always been so diplomatic: the word he chose to use a fortnight ago was "joke".
Unlike Group D. The point, of course, is to inject Madrid's performances with value: it is in Mourinho's interest to underline the quality of their opponents. But on the evidence of the Champions League so far, he has a point when it comes to Borussia Dortmund. The Germans led Real Madrid until the 89th minute; despite Mesut Özil's equaliser, they still lead the group. It was the second time in four games that it had happened: Mario Balotelli's last-minute penalty and Ozil's last-minute free-kick have cost the Germans four points. They have been two minutes away from a perfect record: four wins from four.
Naturally, that could be read as a failing – and Dortmund are a side that cede spaces and chances, that commit men forward and spring quickly and in numbers, occasionally leaving themselves exposed – but the Bundesliga champions are still on eight points. Madrid have seven, Ajax four and City two. They travel to Amsterdam next and then face City in Germany in the last game. They should get through and they should be considered candidates to win the tournament. Mourinho would say so but he was not just saying so. Privately, he has long warned his staff that Dortmund are a genuinely good team that really can win the competition.
Jürgen Klopp's side, so disappointing in last year's competition, have been so impressive in this year's. Roberto Mancini has talked often of the importance of experience; Dortmund appear to have learnt from theirs. Sitting fifth in the league, 11 points off Bayern Munich, their priorities seem clear too.
Against Manchester City, they racked up 22 shots, their demolition complete in all but the scoreline. Against Madrid in Germany they were the better side. On Tuesday night, they ended the game on the ropes but, insisted Klopp, "this is Real Madrid at the Bernabéu" and in the first half, they had deserved their lead. "A victory would have been a fair result," Klopp said. This time, Mourinho did not agree.
Dortmund played Madrid at something approaching their own game: athletic, direct, fast. There is something almost dizzying about the way they play, about the pace and precision of their passing, the verticality of their game. They push men high, particularly wide, pressuring opponents. Their transitions are swift and precise, the full-backs joining in. By the time they took the lead at the Bernabéu, they had already had two good chances. Both fell to Marcel Schmelzer, the left-back sprinting in behind Sergio Ramos. He had scored in Dortmund – after a chance created on the other wing.
Mourinho bemoaned Dortmund's goals here as "serious mistakes". He was right but they were not purely coincidental. Robert Lewandowski was at the heart of both of them. The Pole is a pivot off whom the attack can hinge, drawing defenders towards him and then nodding beyond them, bringing others into the game and bringing them into the game on the run and facing the opposition's goal. The movement around him is fast and direct, a line of three at the Bernabéu comprising Götze, Reus and Grosskreutz always alert to the spaces created, determined to dash beyond him. It is simple, but it is effective and effectively executed: the ball heads to Lewandowski. As it does so, they too head towards him, continuing their run beyond as he helps it on.
Before the game, Mourinho was asked if Dortmund were a team that concerned him in the attacking third. "From three-quarters on … no," he said, "from three quarters, no. The whole team worries me." He added: "This is team that has won two leagues in Germany and that's not chance. It's not chance that they are leaders in the group, which is very difficult. It's a very strong team. Strong, very direct, a very good team. If they go through they are candidates to win the tournament."
Mourinho would say that, of course, but on Tuesday night Alex Ferguson agreed with him. Asked who his favourites are, he replied: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Dortmund.