It was one of the most incredible and most tragic singles seasons in German football history. 2001/02 forever branded Leverkusen as the eternal runners up, or “Neverkusen.” It was a season in which the club reached glorious peaks and a season that culminated in defeat when it mattered most. 2002 was the year Bayer Leverkusen finished second … everywhere.
More remarkable than anything else that season was the Pillmakers’ incredible run to the Champions League final. Ahead of their clash with Manchester United in this season’s group stages, we take a look at one of the memorable, if not the most memorable, run to the final by a German club.
In the fall of 2001, the Champions League final was probably the last thing on the team’s mind, let alone a realistic target. They had to get by Red Star Belgrade in the initial playoffs to even qualify for the group stages. Everyone at the club emphasized the game and said it was arguably the most important in club history. But in coach Klaus Topmuller, Leverkusen got a breath of fresh air after a turbulent season, a new energy and a new collective motivation to do well. Slowly, but surely, it all started coming together.
Topmuller placed a great emphasis on physical conditioning so the team was capable of playing the fast-paced attacking football he desired. His biggest trick of all perhaps was getting the best out of one of Germany’s most talented footballers at the time, Bernd Schneider. Before the season, Topmuller told Schneider he would turn him into one of the best players around and get him to the World Cup the following summer. The trust paid off as Schneider raised his game instantly and improved as the season progressed.
In the group stage, Leverkusen faced Olympique Lyon, Fenerbahce and Barcelona. The Spaniards were the clear favorites and won the group, but Leverkusen’s strong start – which included wins in France, against Barcelona and Fenerbahce – gave them enough to finish runners up. The second phase was a much tougher proposition and few gave Leverkusen a chance against a Juventus side expected to go all the way, or against the up and coming Deportivo La Coruna, and the always dangerous Arsenal. Indeed, Leverkusen were trounced 4-0 in Italy in the first game, but clawed their way back and won the return leg against Juventus and won in Spain against Deportivo.
The quarterfinals were new territory for the club and most expected reigning UEFA Cup champions Liverpool to progress. Leverkusen took a 1-0 loss back to Germany for the second leg, which really kickstarted their magical run. It was also Michael Ballack’s coming out as one of the best big game players around. He scored twice for the Germans and, with five minutes remaining and Leverkusen needing a goal another, the soon to be legend sent Leverkusen fans into euphoria, Lucio’s bombarding run forward and finish. The semifinals awaited and Leverkusen supporters could hardly believe it.
If the quarterfinals were nerve-wracking, then the semifinals were the stuff legends are made of. It began when Ferguson confused Leverkusen with Kaiserslautern in the press conference leading up to the game but there was no confusion from Leverkusen. They were set on reaching the final and upsetting United. Ballack scored again at Old Trafford and Neuville got an important second to give them a huge advantage going back to Germany. There Neuville, who became a cult hero as a result of this season, canceled out Ryan Giggs’ goal to send Leverkusen to the final.
The Manchestser games made Michael Ballack a world class player. Lucio turned into one of the most sought-after defenders in Europe and Ze Roberto and Bernd Schneider were two of the most gifted players in Europe. Amid all the euphoria and disbelief though was the reality that Leverkusen had stretched themselves to their limits. 59 competitive games in all competitions and several international trips for most of the players fatigued them by season’s end and that was a big reason for their collapse at the final hurdle.
Despite the loss in the final, it was a dream season for the club and one that elevated it into the mythos of German football. It turned several individual players into world class footballers and made the careers of many. It was one of the most memorable and surprising Champions league runs in tournament history and from a team that did not hesitate to take risks, put everything on the line and go all out to chase their dream. Leverkusen in 2002 will forever go down as one of the great European campaigns for those very reasons.
Header courtesy of Reuters
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