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After the euphoric evisceration of Paris Saint-Germain, this was the downbeat sequel Newcastle did not want. After the feelgood stories of the Geordie boys scoring in the Champions League came a tale of gritty realism, of meeting their match in the teeming Tyneside rain. There was no triumphant farewell to Sandro Tonali, either: instead Newcastle lost to a goal by a midfielder they considered signing in the summer, in Felix Nmecha, and who Borussia Dortmund bought instead.
With Tonali likely to be banned for the rest of the season – he could learn his fate within days as an investigation into alleged breaches of betting rules nears its conclusion – Nmecha gave Newcastle an added reason to rue their choice.
Nmecha was handed what seemed an unenviable task, hired from Wolfsburg, charged with replacing Jude Bellingham at the Signal Iduna Park. And if that feels impossible, his first Dortmund goal kickstarted their European campaign. Edin Terzic’s team had failed to find the net in their opening two games and if they looked like possible casualties in the competition’s group of death, it now looks like Newcastle could instead. The margins were narrow, the width of the woodwork that denied Callum Wilson and Anthony Gordon but Dortmund inflicted their first defeat in this competition since Barcelona in 2003.
Now Newcastle will head into the rematch in Germany without Tonali. If his debut season in England ends early, it also came to an anti-climactic conclusion. The Italian came off the bench with 25 minutes to go, making scant difference to a game Dortmund were already controlling.
They were everything PSG were not, boasting the combination of organisation, team spirit and running power the French champions failed to show on Tyneside. Newcastle could not blow Dortmund away with their power: not when the visitors had a similar speed, and were lighting quick on the break. Nor could their crowd intimidate them into defeat: not when the travelling Germans were still more vocal. Instead, they encountered a team who could cancel out their strength, with a similar emphasis on high energy.
It was not effort Newcastle lacked, but then it never is. Dortmund supplied a touch of class; arguably two, given the role of a pair of players in their goal. Given how well they defended, perhaps it was apt it began with a challenge.
Nico Schlotterbeck halted Gordon with an immaculate tackle, surged clear and kept going, collecting Marco Reus’s return pass and squaring for Felix Nmecha to sidefoot in. For a few seconds, the centre-back looked more Beckenbauer than Schlotterbeck. The midfielder, who has something of Bellingham’s elegance, showed his technique with the finish.
It had been threatened. The opening 10 minutes could have yielded two goals at either end, but thereafter in the first half Dortmund were the more dangerous. The scoreline would have been greater but for terrific saves at either end. If footballing goalkeepers have captured the Zeitgeist, Newcastle have a goalkeeping goalkeeper.
Nick Pope was their saviour in San Siro and he threatened to reprise that role. A first-minute stop from Donyell Malen was excellent: better still was a superb double save to deny the Dutchman and Niclas Fullkrug.
Malen produced a curiosity of a performance, adopting a shoot-on-sight policy and mustering six efforts before the break. Yet he was a sign of Dortmund’s counterattacking menace: their speed on the transition brought back memories of Jurgen Klopp’s blistering side a decade ago. Kieran Trippier, so often a great strength for Newcastle, was made to look a weak link as Dortmund found space behind him.
At the other end, meanwhile, Gregor Kobel made twin early saves from Gordon. His best save came early in the second half, repelling Wilson’s shot. And when Wilson beat Kobel with a late header, it bounced back off the bar. It was not Dortmund’s only reprieve: in the 94th minute, Gordon’s shot looped up off Sebastien Haller, over Kobel and on to the bar.
Gordon was relentless, probably Newcastle’s best outfield player, yet Wilson’s prominence was a sign their plans were going awry. Eddie Howe had demoted the striker and selected Alexander Isak, but he limped off inside a quarter of an hour. When the substitute Jacob Murphy hurt his shoulder a few minutes after coming on, Newcastle may have, in effect, lost three players, given Tonali’s imminent suspension.
And yet Dortmund were depleted, too, minus Julian Brandt, stripped of the stricken Emre Can before half-time. But there was a resourcefulness and a resilience to them, a willingness to them. A team with a lone defeat in the Bundesliga in 2023 were not to be beaten. And as Newcastle lost instead, it prompted the question of whether the anomaly was this underwhelming evening or the glorious night they demolished PSG.