Sooner or later, Borussia Dortmund’s bubble will burst. No side can keep on slugging it out with a team whose wage bill is double their own.
But, for now, that bubble remains intact. Dortmund lost Mario Gotze to Bayern Munich, their biggest domestic rivals, in the summer, and they have been without Lukasz Piszczek and Ilkay Gundogan through injury, and yet they look stronger than ever, sitting proudly atop the Bundesliga with five wins out of five before today’s clash with struggling Nuremberg.
Wednesday’s Champions League loss to Napoli was a setback, but that campaign will be back on track if they can beat Marseille at home on October 1. No club has such a fine recent record of transfer activity as Dortmund and this summer, once again, they made the right deals for the right players at the right time.
Pierre-Emerich Aubemayang joined for £11.4 million (Dh67.2m) and has already scored five goals in five Bundesliga games, while Henrikh Mkhytarian, probably already the finest footballer from Armenia, was signed for £24.2m from Shakhtar Donetsk. Both are 24, just coming into the peak of their careers.
The greater pressure was on Mkhitaryan, partly because of the size of his fee, and partly because he is the more direct replacement for Gotze, who was sold to Bayern for £32.5m. He has taken to his new team, though, with his familiar enthusiasm, his passion stoked, perhaps, by being made to room with Kevin Grosskreutz, the season-ticket-holder who became a first-teamer and taught Mkhitaryan 20 Dortmund chants.
His coach at Shakhtar, Mircea Lucescu, has spoken glowingly about his intelligence on the pitch and his devotion to self-improvement off it. Mkhitaryan is one of those rarest of footballers: a hugely gifted player who genuinely loves the game.
Mkhitaryan was born into football. His father, Hamlet, was a respected centre-forward for Ararat Yerevan, Armenia’s most successful club in Soviet times, in the late 1980s. He had a brief stint at Kotayk Abovian, and in 1989, a few months after Henrik’s birth, he was transferred to the French club ASOA Valence, where he spent five years before a move to Issy, picking up two caps for the newly independent Armenia.
Even then, the younger Mkhitaryan’s love for football was clear. “When I was a child, I used to watch my father playing football, and I always wanted to follow him to training,” he said. “When he didn’t take me with him, I stayed next to the door, crying.
“I always wanted to become a football player, and I thank my parents, as they helped me so much to realise this dream. They always supported me on my path.”
Much of that support has had to come from his mother. The Mkhitaryans returned to Yerevan in 1995, and a year later, when Henrikh was seven, his father died from a brain tumour. Football, though, remained a major part of the family’s life. Henrikh’s mother works for the Armenian Football Federation, while his sister, Monica, is employed at Uefa headquarters in Switzerland.
With no Armenian enjoying a higher profile than Mkhitaryan, he is aware that he has greater responsibility than most players, acting almost as an icebreaker for the whole of the nation’s football, cutting a path for others to follow. “I want Armenian children to realise they don’t have to stop in the Armenian league, thinking that they’re not able to achieve anything more,” he said. “Every person has to keep in mind that they can grow up and reach the top, no matter where they are born, whether it’s in Russia, in Ukraine, in Europe.
“They’ve still got the opportunity to show their talent and the culture of their people.”
Dortmund, with their progressive, attacking approach, are probably the perfect showcase for Mkhitaryan. He said in the summer that he wanted to join because he loved the way they play, which is about the strongest endorsement possible from a player of his fitness level. The loss of Gotze, which seemed so crippling at the time, may actually have made them stronger.
Gladbach v Eintracht 10.30pm
Hannover v Augsburg 5.30pm
Mainz v Leverkusen 5.30pm
Nuremberg v Dortmund 5.30pm
Wolfsburg v Hoffenheim 5.30pm
Hamburg v Bremen 5.30pm
Schalke v Bayern 8.30pm
Freiburg v Hertha 5.30pm
Stuttgart v Frankfurt 7.30pm