Mitchell Langerak. Goalkeeper, 2011 German Champions, Borussia Dortmund: One start. One goal allowed. One victory.
It's quite possible that when historians of the game are looking over the past performances of Mitch Langerak, trying to see where one of Australia's (the world's?) top goaltenders got his start, they might miss the significance of a truly auspicious beginning. A 3-1 victory in Munich. Looking back, Langerak himself might wince a bit -- like all top athletes (other than Nicklas Bendtner), hypercritical of his performance -- lamenting a single allowed goal that he had virtually no chance to stop. But as was clear to fans that night, that was no ordinary victory, and Mitch Langerak is clearly no ordinary goalkeeper.
One might notice that the opponent that evening was Bayern Munich, the "record champions" and self-annointed German football nobility. Well, that raises an eyebrow. At the time, Bayern appeared to be hitting its stride after a shaky start to the season that saw superstars Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben sidelined and the team uncharacteristically out of the league's elite in the standings. Dortmund had, of course, leapt out to a near record performance in the autumn half, obliterating its opponents -- with a particularly strong performance on the road -- and jumped out to a double-digit lead at the winter break. Included was a deserved 2:0 at home against Bayern, a victory that announced to the league that Dortmund was no flash in the pan. Bayern had lost to both Dortmund and Mainz, the latter of whom would prove to be the opening act for Dortmund's command performance. The likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Bayern's front office luminaries groused and grumbled as the undeserving "small teams" from the north and west took Bayern's rightful spot -- a Pfefferpotthast where the Weisswurst should be. But after the break, with Kagawa Shinji out after an injury obtained playing for his country, and Bayern getting back to full strength with "Robbery" healthy, Mario Gomez finally finding the net, and Luis Gustavo purchased from Hoppenheim, there were rumblings -- despite a significant spread in the standings -- that water would find its level, and Bayern would again ascend to the top.
Oh -- and the match was played in Munich, too -- an evening showcase in a city where Dortmund had not won in two decades. Ottmar Hitzfeld's back-to-back German Champions and 1997 Champions League winners? Lost 1:0, 30 March, 1996. Drew 0:0, October 20, 1996. 2001-02 Champions, with Rosicky and Koller? Drew 1:1, 9 February, 2002. For good measure, in two games the previous season, 2009-10, Bayern, which won the title and reached the Champions League final, thrashed BVB 1:5 in Dortmund and 3:1 in Munich. Bayern lifer Uli Hoeness wrung his hands with anticipation and stated that if he "was wearing black and yellow shorts," he "wouldn't be sleeping soundly." (Jurgen Klopp rightly asked what color the shorts might have been before Uli went to sleep.)
More ominously, the team's acting captain, Roman Weidenfeller, who had become one of the league's most respected and feared goaltenders, was to miss the game. The press that had all along questioned whether Dortmund had the depth to sustain a title run patted themselves on the back. Weidenfeller's understudy was a promising but completely green Australian with no caps for his senior team and no experience in the Bundesliga. The absence of the seasoned Weidenfeller meant that Borussia's lineup would be the youngest in league history. Mitch Langerak's first start was a pivotal one, and he was going to have Robben, Ribery, Muller, and Gomez bearing down on him in the most hostile of venues. On paper, it didn't look good for Borussia.
But this backstory is narrative for fans and historians. For Langerak, as for BVB, no opponent would be underestimated, and no opponent feared. Goaltenders are often on an island, and recognized more for mistakes than steady play. Pressure is endemic to, or even defines the position. Langerak likely had the full confidence of the people whose opinion mattered -- teammates and coaches. And Borussia itself had already written history by obtaining astonishing results with inexperienced players. Mitch was not the first youngster to take the pitch for the first place Borussians, and he wouldn't be the last. His defensive four were of the same vintage, and all were regulars for their national sides. The team had every reason to be confident.
As the game unfolded, a team effort overcame Munich. Kevin Grosskreutz converted a miscue by Schweinsteiger into a beautiful through ball for Lucas Barrios, who slotted home -- 1:0, and a dream start. But due to double-teams of Bayern's speedsters, the Munich side dominated possession. And, they quickly tied the score on a corner. Gustavo, the recent signing, lashed in a volley that left Langerak (and the entire defense) flatfooted. Langerak had no chance. This was truly a turning point for the eventual champions. The young guns had lost their lead as quickly as it arrived. A lot of teams would have wilted, but not BVB. Nuri Sahin's bullet minutes later returned the lead to Borussia, and they would not relinquish it. A header from Bayern castoff Mats Hummels put an exclamation point on a historic 3:1 win.
For his part, Langerak stood tall after the conceded goal. He confidently parried crosses, and frustrated Mario Gomez with a point blank save. As stated, unlike many of the victories that would define Dortmund's dream season, Dortmund saw far less possession than their opponents. Although Bayern did not see many clear chances, they managed fourteen shots, and Mitch Langerak three saves. Mitch was constantly alert, with Bayern's assassins always a pass or two from an open shot.
In many ways, Langerak's win was symbolic of Borussia's title. Here was a player signed by Borussia despite little experience, having played in a relatively new league. He replaced Marc Ziegler, an established backup, and won the confidence of the coaches based on practice perfomances. He outplayed his opponent in net, Thomas Kraft, equally young, but a product of the Bayern reserve ranks, and a player with whom the Bayern management was emininently familiar. (Kraft's solid performances did not keep him from being summarily cast off by Bayern after the season, however, the board preferring to sink 20 million euros into Manuel Neuer, a move which can only end well for all concerned. . . .)
So, what might seem like a minor contribution to Borussia's title was a critical milestone, a historic win, and a symbolically rich performance. Wherever Langerak's future takes him, his first season has set him in the right direction. And we can hope that his bright future is also Borussia's. Off the field, Mitch Langerak is quite familiar to followers of Schwatzgelb's English site. As the only native English speaker on the roster (though Neven Subotic did grow up in the United States,) Mitch was kind enough to submit to brief video interviews with Schwatzgelb's intrepid reporters, (and -- knock on wood -- appears not to have filed for a restraining order to prevent future interviews.) Unwittingly, he was an ambassador of sorts to Borussia's foreign fans, and proved to be friendly and well-spoken.
It will be difficult for the team to keep Langerak if he isn't getting regular appearances, but he is an injury to Weidenfeller away from starting in the Champions League this season. With the Pokal also proceeding simultaneously, Mitch could see further starts there, as well. And with the Munich result in mind, Borussia fans can be assured that they have plenty of depth at keeper to sustain a title defense and a Champions League campaign.
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