A great week for Bayer 04 Leverkusen became even greater Tuesday evening as Die Werkself followed up their dramatic 1-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund Saturday with their first away win in 15 Champions League matches, as they downed a plucky Real Sociedad side. 1-0, securing their advance to the tournament’s knockout stages. Leverkusen join Bayern Munich in the group of 16, with the CL fates of fellow Bundesliga sides Dortmund and Schalke to be determined Wednesday.
It wasn’t easy. Tuesday’s action saw a constantly efforting, but only once rewarded, black-clad Leverkusen side throw everything in attack at their Spanish hosts, but only cashing in five minutes into the second half from defender Ömer Toprak’s close-range shot following a Leverkusen corner kick. Meanwhile, the Basque side, who’d only earned one point in their previous five Group matches this year, continually demonstrated better quality than their tournament record indicated. being always in the game and threatening to breach Bernd Leno’s goal numerous times during the nervy contest.
Trailing both Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk in Group A standings, it was do or die time for Die Werkself. Leverkusen manager Sami Hyypiä penciled in the exact starting lineup Tuesday as the one that downed Dortmund Saturday, with Emre Can, Ömer Toprak, Emir Spahić and Giulio Donati lined left to right in front of Leno, shielded by Gonzalo Castro, captain Simon Rolfes and Lars Bender. Stefan Kießling, with nine goals thus far this season in league play, led upfront, flanked by Heung Min-Son and Jens Hegeler, as once again Hyypiä was wihtout the services of attacker Sidney Sam. Meanwhile, Sociedad’s young manager Jagoba Arrasate, in his first season heading the Spanish club’s senior squad, chose backup goalkeeper Eñaut Zubikara for the start and relied on an attack that created 17 goals in the club’s last seven La Liga matches.
Despite only one goal being scored Tuesday in San Sebastian, Leverkusen and Sociedad combined for 39 shots. The visitors started the game slowly, with Leno called upon to make an early punch away of a Sociedad shot, while Toprak made a good sliding tackle at the byline to defuse another potential threat. But Leverkusen soon came to life, with captain Rolfes getting off an errant shot from distance before Gonzalo Castro struck a mean free kick that glanced off the near post, with Kießling’s followup header saved by Zubikara. Although Leverkusen was the more threatening side as the half wore on, young Frenchman Antoine Griezmann caused worry for Leverkusen fans, both on his own accord and as provider. His late pass to goalbound teammate Carlos Vela was only inches beyond the reach of the Mexican as he slid trying to record the contest’s first goal.
At intermission, Hyypiä replaced Hegeler with pacy Australian Robbie Kruse, a move that paid almost immediate dividends. Less than five minutes into the second half, Kruse drove down the right flank before unleashing a lethal-looking cross to Kießling, whose header brought the best out in Sociedad’s backup keeper as he responded with a quality save. The resulting corner kick, however, provided Hyypiä and company with the only goal required on this day as the ball eventually fell to the feet of Toprak, who deftly deposited it into the back of the Sociedad net, giving the Germans the 1-0 lead.
Unfortunately for Leverkusen, an insurance goal was not forthcoming. Despite seven shots from Kießling, four from Son and three apiece from Rolfes and Castro, Leverkusen were unable to give their fans any respite from their nerves, as Griezmann looked like he would inevitably score on one of his seven shots. Both goalkeepers, along with some stout defending by each club and some unlucky finishing (Kießling must have felt that their was a cosmic conspiracy against him Tuesday) held forth despite the entertaining attack-orientation of the match, as Leverkusen hung onto their narrow margin to earn a sliver of glory after some very frustrating group performances.
After Champions League results that saw Leverkusen lose twice to Manchester United by an aggregate 9-2 margin and playing to a scoreless draw against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine, one could hardly take for granted a win over Real Sociedad Tuesday. Yet Die Werkself got the job done.
Stop and think a moment. After Tuesday’s win and Leverkusen’s third round Pokal victory over SC Freiburg, Bayer Leverkusen on December 10, 2013 stand in the same position as the much wealthier, higher profile Bayern Munich side — they both have a chance at winning the treble in 2014 !!!
Following last season’s third place finish, in which they were 26 points behind champions Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga table, the club lost high-quality players Andre Schurrle and Daniel Carvajal. Did Leverkusen panic? No. Hyypiä and Sporting Director Rudi Voller brought in Hamburg’s talented Son, speedy Kruse from demoted Fortuna, young unproven defenders Can and Donati, veteran Bosnian international Saphic….and got better.
Hyypiä deserves a great deal of credit for coaching the young defenders up into quality starters, integrating Saphic into the backline, Son into the attack and using Kruse as a supersub. The team is focused, and except for their matches with Manchester United, have been consistently stingy, allowing only 14 goals in league play, the lowest total outside of Munich. Despite Hyypiä’s background as a defender, his team boasts a threatening attack that has tallied 32 league goals (fifth best in the Bundesliga), and more importantly, has only been shut out twice in 15 Bundesliga matches this year, which translates into a rather even distribution of goals over each matchday, meaning that Leverkusen always have a very good chance at picking up a win every time out.
Will Bayer 04 Leverkusen win the treble? Possibly, but highly unlikely, considering Pep’s Bayern juggernaut they are competing against. Considering Bayern’s depth and strength, it’s unlikely that Die Werkself will bring home any trophies this spring. But they are very much alive in three different competitions, meaning that their manager has done everything he can do successfully this season. All hail Hyypiä !!!
Real Sociedad: Zubikarai, Martinez, Ansotegi, Mikel (66 Gaztanaga), Jose Angel – Bergara, Elustondo (62′ Xabi Prieto), Pardo, Carlos, Agirretxe (80′ Seferovic) – Griezmann
Bayer Leverkusen: Leno – Donati, Toprak, Spahic, Can – Rolfes, Bender, Castro, Hegeler (46′ Kruse), Kießling (86′ Derdiyok), Son (90+1′ Kohr)
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