BERLIN (AP) Hundreds of Borussia Dortmund fans welcomed the team back after its Ruhr derby win over Schalke, celebrating wildly as if the team had already won the Bundesliga title.
They waited Saturday night for the bus to arrive from Gelsenkirchen, then greeted it with fireworks and flares, jumping up and down, singing songs and waving flags.
“What a brilliant reception! You’re the best fans!” Sebastian Kehl, head of the players’ department, wrote on Instagram.
Midfielder Axel Witsel posted footage showing one fan blowing kisses toward the team bus before shaking his fist in triumph.
Saturday’s 2-1 win at Schalke was Dortmund’s first Ruhr derby win in three years, its first after five meetings between the sides, and it widened the gap over its biggest rival to 22 points after 14 matches.
More importantly, it kept the team nine points ahead of defending champion Bayern Munich, which eased to a 3-0 home win over promoted Nuremberg at the same time.
No one at the club dares acknowledge it, but Dortmund – the only remaining unbeaten team in the league – has emerged as a genuine title candidate, the only realistic hope of ending Bayern’s six-year-stranglehold on the league.
Bayern is going for a record-extending seventh straight title but fell to a 3-2 loss in Dortmund and hasn’t been convincing in Niko Kovac’s first season in charge.
Dortmund coach Lucien Favre’s, on the other hand, could hardly be going better. Saturday’s win in Gelsenkirchen was another close one, not pretty, but an example of Dortmund digging out a win in difficult circumstances. Once Jadon Sancho restored Dortmund’s lead late in the match, the team simply closed out the game. Schalke never looked like getting an equalizer.
Dortmund is displaying a resilience and strength of character that hadn’t been seen since Juergen Klopp led the club to back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.
“The mentality is right. We ended up losing many 50-50 games last season,” Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Buerki said. “We’re trying everything to stay up there and to start the second half of the season with a good feeling.”
Defeating Schalke, lately a thorn in the side for Dortmund, will likely give the team a further boost as it bids to maintain its league lead.
“We were all looking forward to it,” Dortmund captain Marco Reus said of the derby. “It will give us another shot of confidence and a lot of strength.”
After spectacular comeback wins this season against Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen, Favre was pleased again with how his players kept their cool in Gelsenkirchen.
“I liked how the team reacted after the 1-1 (Schalke equalizer). They played better, kept calm, had more ball possession and more goal chances,” Favre said. “We deserved to win in the end.”