Bayer Leverkusen 3-1 SL Benfica: Çalhanöglu seals vital win for Die Werkself

Hakan Çalhanöglu’s 61st minute penalty helped Bayer 04 Leverkusen to a comfortable victory against Portuguese Champions SL Benfica that only ever looked in doubt in the 60 or so seconds between Eduardo Salvio’s goal for SL Benfica and the penalty decision for the home side.

They were in vital need of a victory after their defeat against struggling AS Monaco in round one. They have also been struggling recently in the Bundesliga, barely able to beat Augsburg seven days ago and at the weekend they were frustrated by Freiburg ‘keeper Roman Bürki. Benfica were also coming off the back of an opening round defeat, they lost to Russian side Zenit 2-0 at home, but domestically they’re performing very well. They currently sit top of the Primeira Liga table with 16 points, 4 clear of FC Porto.

Both sides made changes for tonight’s game, Leverkusen took out youngster Tin Jedvaj and replaced him with Ömer Toprak, whilst rather strangely Benfica coach Jorge Jesus replaced star players Maxi Pereira and Rodrigo Lima with André Almeida and Talisca. Leverkusen Coach Roger Schmidt was also still missing key players Simon Rolfes and Gonzalo Castro through injury.

From the get-go Leverkusen didn’t give the Benfica players an inch to breathe. Schmidt clearly wanted his side to implement his famous high-pressing and they did just that. They repeatedly dispossessed Benfica players and also forced errors that resulted in decent opportunities.  Inside the first minute Karim Bellarabi left defender Eliseu devoid of the ball as he ran on and unleashed a long-range effort that was just wide. Then came a brilliant chance for Heung-Min Son to make it 1-0; again Bellarabi was involved, this time running down the wing before cutting back and back heeling the ball into Son’s path. The South Korean attacker then took the ball into the box and shot straight at Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar when perhaps the better option would’ve been to square it for Stefan Kießling,who was open inside the 6-yard box.

Cesar looked uncomfortable for most of the first half, repeatedly letting the ball slip from his grasp. The first instance came in the 11th minute when he spilled a shot from Bellarabi but central defender Luisao was able to clear. The second instance however cost Benfica a goal, after some wonderful build-up play starting at the halfway line the ball eventually fell to Son who discharged a very tame effort from the edge of the box that should’ve been easy for Cesar to collect. Instead he spilled it and this time Kießling anticipated, running into the box before tapping home past the prostrate Brazilian keeper.

Bayer then increased the pressure on a very poor Benfica side. Çalhanöglu had a sweeping effort from distance which was well saved by the former QPR goalkeeper. The home side then doubled their lead in the 33rd minute when a long ball down the near touchline fell to Bellarabi who was allowed to take it down and control before playing a lovely one-two with Lars Bender. He then cut the ball back for Son who struck a gorgeous first time effort into the top corner, leaving the keeper with no chance. The rest of the half was filled with chance after chance for Leverkusen as they continued to press forward and many of the home fans were probably disappointed when the half-time whistle blew.

At half-time Jorge Jesus decided to bring on Maxi Pereira and Rodrigo Lima after the gamble to rest them clearly hadn’t worked. There was something of a controversial moment just after the restart when after Kießling had hit the ground Benfica midfielder Enzo Perez appeared to stand on his leg on purpose. We then witnessed one of the misses of the season, nearly as bad as Junior Malanda’s miss against Bayern back in August. Again Bellarabi was the instigator this time running down the right flank before coming into the box. He played the ball across the 6-yard box to an unmarked Çalhanoglu who seemingly only had to get a touch on it and it would be in. Just before he hit it the ball took quite a significant bobble and ended coming off Çalhanoglu’s shin before sneaking past the outside of the post.

Just before the hour mark Benfica started to create a couple of half chances from both open play and set pieces. The best chance actually resulted in a goal for Eduardo Salvio.   Nicolás Gaitán cut inside before passing to Pereira, who beat his man and passed it to Salvio in space inside the box. The Argentinian winger then cut inside before sending a very smart finish into the bottom corner sending keeper Bernd Leno the wrong way.

Their resurgence was short-lived, as about sixty seconds later Kießling went up the other end and won a penalty. He received the ball at the corner of the box before running inside and the going over after a challenge from Jardel. It was hard to judge whether or not the Brazilian defender won the ball but he certainly caught Kießling and the extra assistant at the side of the goal informed referee Martin Atkinson who then subsequently ordered the penalty. Çalhanoglu recovered from his earlier miss to step and slot home coolly into the bottom corner sending the keeper the wrong way.

After their 3rd goal Leverkusen were content to run down the clock and as a result there weren’t many chances for either side as Bayer didn’t create and also defended well, stifling the Benfica attack which rarely threatened on the night.

Up next for Leverkusen they have two games in the Bundesliga followed by a tough home tie against Russian side Zenit. Benfica meanwhile will travel to the Stade Louis II stadium to face AS Monaco.

Bayer Leverkusen: Leno – Hilbert, Spahić, Toprak, Wendell – Bender (Donati 82’), Reinartz, Bellarabi (Öztunali 70’), Çalhanoglu, Son – Kießling (Drmic 76’)

SL Benfica: Júlio César – Luisão, Eliseu, Jardel, André Almeida – Pérez (Samaris 77’), Gaitán, Salvio, Cristante (Pereira 46’), Talisca (Lima 46’) – Derley

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Ryan currently lives in Northern Ireland but studies Mechanical Engineering in Scotland at Robert Gordon University. His complete obsession for all divisions of German football as a whole is only beaten by his love for 1899 Hoffenheim, he could possibly be the only Hoffenheim fan in the World for whom English is a first language, certainly the only one in the UK. He tries to make it to Germany for football at least once a year.

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