DUESSELDORF, Germany (AP)Chelsea’s star signings, a whirl of transfer speculation, the roaring crowd of 81,000 – none of it fazed Jude Bellingham.
At just 19, the England midfielder walked calmly up for the coin toss wearing the Borussia Dortmund captain’s armband and then led his team to victory over Chelsea in the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday.
It was a measure of Bellingham’s stature at Dortmund and the respect of his teammates that he was picked to lead the team out for one of the biggest games of the season. He looked a confident leader on the field, unafraid to give orders or to fire up the crowd, though he did come close to earning a second yellow card at one stage. Bellingham was careful to keep the 1-0 win in perspective, too.
”I think it’s a good win for us at home, definitely. But it’s still only a one-goal lead,” he said in televised comments. ”We know how quickly a team like Chelsea can carve us open and create chances to score goals. They’ve nearly done it tonight. So I think we’ve got to be grateful that we’ve performed the way we have, but not get too carried away and understand that we’ve got another big job on our hands in the second leg.”
It wasn’t quite Bellingham’s first time as captain – he had worn the armband three times already this season – but to do it at 19 in such a high-pressure game stands out. Only one other player has been a captain in a men’s Champions League knockout game while still a teenager – Matthijs de Ligt for Ajax in 2019.
Coach Edin Terzic felt comfortable giving Bellingham the armband, making it easier to bench regular captain Marco Reus and vice-captain Mats Hummels, both grizzled veterans. In turn that helped Dortmund play at higher intensity, guarding against Chelsea’s quick counters and scoring the only goal of the game thanks to Karim Adeyemi’s pace.
Bellingham’s age belies his experience, given he’s already played 162 games of first-team soccer for Dortmund and his first club, Birmingham. On Sunday, he’s in line for his 81st career Bundesliga game as Dortmund hosts struggling Hertha Berlin in an attempt to close the three-point gap to league leader Bayern Munich.
Dortmund was inconsistent in the first half of the season, not helped by selling Erling Haaland to Manchester City and then losing his replacement, Sebastien Haller, for the first half of the season while he underwent cancer treatment.
Dortmund went into the World Cup break a lowly sixth in the Bundesliga, nine points off the top. The extra-long break in Germany, at two months the longest of any the top five European leagues, has revitalized the team. The win over Chelsea was Dortmund’s seventh in a row in all competitions to start 2023 with a 100% record. Ending Bayern’s record streak of Bundesliga titles is still unlikely, but Dortmund has a shot and plenty of momentum.
As the season nears its end, the speculation around Bellingham’s future will only get louder after three seasons in Germany. While he has two years left on his contract, all indications are that Bellingham will be at the center of the latest transfer saga of a young Dortmund star heading to the Premier League, much like Haaland last season and Jadon Sancho the season before.
Whoever buys Bellingham won’t just be getting one of the best allround midfielders in world soccer, they’ll be getting a leader too.
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