DUESSELDORF, Germany (AP) — From cancer treatment to the brink of a German league title. Sébastien Haller is having an extraordinary season.
Haller was diagnosed with testicular cancer in July, weeks after signing with Borussia Dortmund. Not only did he return to playing, he has scored crucial goals to leave Dortmund one game away from ending Bayern Munich’s decade-long streak of Bundesliga titles.
“If someone had told me six months ago that I’d be in this position, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Haller told broadcaster DAZN after scoring twice in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Augsburg that put the team atop the standings. “I think it’s a great opportunity, not only for me, but for the team. I think we invested a lot in this and now we have a huge chance to achieve something big. So let’s see.”
Six months ago in November, Haller was undergoing the second of two operations as part of his cancer treatment. The care also included four cycles of chemotherapy, each meaning five days in a hospital bed.
When Haller returned to training Jan. 3, there was talk of a lengthy, gradual process before he’d return to the team. Ten days later, he scored a hat trick in seven minutes in a friendly against Swiss club Basel. Nine days after that, he made a belated Bundesliga debut for Dortmund.
“With my return, I hope that it can give a boost,” he said.
It certainly has.
Since Haller’s return, Dortmund has transformed from an also-ran to the title favorite. Dortmund was in sixth place and nine points off Bayern at the winter break. Since then, in 18 Bundesliga games with Haller on the field, Dortmund has won 14, drawn three and lost one. The Ivory Coast striker has nine goals, including five in the last three games, and has played a key role creating space and chances for other forwards like Donyell Malen and Karim Adeyemi.
Against Augsburg on Saturday, Dortmund went into halftime at 0-0 despite having had a string of scoring chances and Augsburg having a player sent off. Dortmund had repeatedly dropped points this season in draws with lower-ranked teams like Schalke and Bochum. Doing so again would cost it the chance to go ahead of Bayern, which had surprisingly lost to Leipzig the day before.
“Everyone knew that this was a great chance,” Haller said. ”We knew also that we wasted a few chances in the past, so we tried to stick together, to speak a lot with each other, to be sure that we stuck to our principles, to stay positive, to stay patient. And I think today is the best example that, yeah, it worked.”
Haller’s two goals against Augsburg showed his striker’s instinct. For the first, he snapped up a loose ball and scored after defender Maximilian Bauer failed to control an intercepted cross. For the second, he made sure he was in the right place at the right time to knock in the rebound when teammate Marco Reus’ shot was saved.
Now Dortmund needs one more win against Mainz on Saturday to secure its first German title since 2012, when Jurgen Klopp was the coach. That would mean Haller achieving something that his predecessor as Dortmund striker, Erling Haaland, never managed.
“We just need to stick to the principle, stick together, with the same work rate that we we’ve shown in the past and today,” Haller said. “And it will come, you know, there’s no magic. It’s just investment, a lot of work and positivity.”
By JAMES ELLINGWORTH AP Sports Writer
AP Sports Writer Ciarán Fahey in Berlin contributed to this report.