AN UNLIKELY HERO – Paul Lambert and Borussia Dortmund

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Updated: May 3, 2013
Paul Lambert

And so after surviving a late scare against Real Madrid on Tuesday evening, Borussia Dortmund finally booked their place in the 2013 Champions League final. Heading into the tie with a 4-1 first leg advantage, Jurgen Klopp’s men were overwhelming favourites to progress to the Wembley showpiece and ultimately secured their passage – despite their hosts netting two goals in the final ten minutes of the game.

Nonetheless, their can be few people who would argue the Bundesliga side were not worthy winners and victory now sets up a mouth-watering tie with domestic rivals Bayern Munich in the final of European football’s premier competition – a stage they have graced just once before, in 1997 when they defeated Juventus 3-1 in Munich’s Olympiastadion. A key part of that Champions League winning side was the ex-Norwich City and current Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert, who arrived at the club in the summer of 1996 after spells with Scottish sides St. Mirren and Motherwell.

The man who brought Lambert to Germany was Ottmar Hitzfeld; one of the most successful managers in the club’s history, winning consecutive Bundesliga titles in 1994-95 and 1995-96. Lambert had first come to Hitzfeld’s attention when Dortmund faced Motherwell in the 1994-95 UEFA Cup. Upon his arrival in Germany, Hitzfeld opted to deploy Lambert as a defensive midfielder, a position where the Scotsman’s determination and hard work would see him flourish. By his own admission, Lambert was never one of the most technically gifted of players: “As a player I was poor. I was probably the worst player in the Dortmund side, a team with genuinely world class players.”

The world-class players that Lambert here alludes to include the likes of Karl-Heinz Riedle, Andreas Moller, and Matthias Sammer, Sammer, of course, being the first defender to win the European Player of the Year since the great Franz Beckenbauer. The caliber of his teammates – and Lambert’s relative obscurity – meant few expected much of him when he arrived at Dortmund. The transfer was to prove a masterstroke from Hitzfeld, Dortmund, though unable to win a third consecutive Bundesliga title, finishing third, went on to have their most memorable season in the Champions League to date.

Their opening fixture came against Polish side Widzew Lodz, and saw Lambert score his only goal of the tournament as Dortmund were held to a 2-2 draw. Not the best of starts, but Dortmund and Lambert battled on to finish second in their group behind Atletico Madrid. Setting-up a quarter-final match with Auxerre, a tie Dortmund navigated successfully, running out 4-1 winners over the two legs. The next round saw the first real test of Dortmund’s mettle, after they were drawn against Manchester United in the semi-final. The English side, considered to be the favorites for the tie, then boasted Eric Cantona, Andy Cole, and David Beckham amongst their ranks.

As so often in football, things didn’t go according to the script. Thanks to the tenacious work of Lambert and his teammates, Dortmund kept a clean sheet in both legs, scoring once themselves in each fixture, and emerging 2-0 victors on aggregate. Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane lavished praise on Lambert’s performance in the tie, whilst Lambert himself was typically magnanimous, lauding the work ethic of his team mates, saying: “The Germans have a great belief in their ability and their teamwork ethic.”

Juventus were the victors of the other semi-final, and the reigning champions from 1995-96 were fearsome opponents. With a squad containing the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, and Alessandro Del Piero – and having already sealed the Serie A title – the Italian side were in great form. Paul Lambert and Dortmund were once again the underdogs.

Since it was Zidane who had been so central to Juve’s success, Hitzfeld detailed Lambert with the job of marking him during the final: this tactic which was to prove central to Dortmund’s victory. With Lambert watching his every move, and biting at his heels whenever in possession, Zidane was unable to make his mark on the match, and without his creative spark Juventus struggled.  Despite his defensive duties, it was Lambert who provided the cross for Dortmund’s opener, finding Riedle who duly gave his side the lead just before the half hour mark. Five minutes later Riedle doubled Dortmund’s advantage, finding space from a corner to nod in his second of the match. Juventus did manage to pull a goal back in the 64th minute through Del Piero. However the threat of a comeback was short lived after Lars Ricken, fresh from coming on as a substitute, restored the two goal advantage with 71 minutes on the clock.

They had done it: the game finished 3-1 and Dortmund were crowned champions of Europe. Riedle’s goal scoring heroics aside, for many – the man of the match was the unsung Scotsman in central midfield. The solidity Lambert provided from his holding position, and his nullifying of the threat of Zidane gave Dortmund the base from which to go on and win. A victory which saw Lambert become the first British player to win the Champions League with a foreign club. In typical style Lambert played down the fuss, remarking on how he gave the shirts swapped with the Juventus players to his father, and how the medals are somewhere around his house, though he’s not certain where. What is certain is the crucial contribution Lambert made to one of the proudest moments of Borussia Dortmund’s history.

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