Back on the field, Haller hopes to spark Dortmund's revival

DORTMUND, Germany (AP) — Sébastien Haller has already faced his toughest challenge of this season, or indeed any season. Reviving Borussia Dortmund looks simple by comparison.

A loud roar greeted Haller on his belated debut for Dortmund on Sunday, ending six months out of the game. Following two operations for testicular cancer and chemotherapy, he was back.

Before the game, a dramatic 4-3 win over Augsburg, Haller reminded his teammates to keep soccer in perspective.

"He (Dortmund coach Edin Terzic) asked me how I feel to speak, and I said, ‘Of course, if you give me the chance, I will speak, because it’s, in my opinion, something even more than football,'” said Haller, an Ivory Coast international who was born in France.

“It's always nice to try to make them realize how big the things are, and football at the end, it's in the background. So (we) just need to not forget why we play.”

Haller was first diagnosed with a tumor in July, less than a month after signing for Dortmund. He had been brought in from Ajax to replace Erling Haaland after the Norwegian was sold to Manchester City, and Dortmund's plans for 2022-23 were built around him.

Without Haller, Dortmund slipped to sixth in the Bundesliga. Anthony Modeste was signed as an emergency replacement, but the experienced French striker scored only twice in 20 games. Eighteen-year-old forward Youssoufa Moukoko has plenty of talent but hasn't looked quite ready to lead a team of Dortmund's stature every week.

Haller came on against Augsburg with a half hour remaining to replace Moukoko — Modeste was out of the squad entirely — and while he didn't score, he created space for other substitutes to shine as bench players Jamie Bynoe-Gittens and Gio Reyna scored crucial goals.

“We all know what’s happened the first part of the season, and now we have the chance to start the new year with another dynamic. Something new, something extra. Another boost,” Haller said. “Also with my return, I hope that it can give a boost. Of course, with the atmosphere today, with the fans, with the team, with the win, we need to use those things, too, to create something new.”

Dortmund's perennial quest to end the dominance of Bayern Munich may be out of reach for another year, seven points behind the champions, but a battle looms for the Champions League places with Eintracht Frankfurt, Leipzig, Wolfsburg and surprise challengers Union Berlin and Freiburg.

After getting through a Champions League group with Manchester City, Sevilla and Copenhagen, Dortmund has a last-16 match next month against another big team in difficulties, Chelsea.

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James Ellingworth, The Associated Press