It is often said that the sign of a good team is the ability to win a game without being at their best, and with big questions being asked of Bayer Leverkusen after a less than auspicious start to their Bundesliga campaign, they finally showed an element of resilience and fight that has been lacking in the opening weeks. Roger Schmidt still has a lot of work to do in order to turn his team into potential title challengers, but while Coral may have written off their chances as they already find themselves eight points behind early pacesetters Bayern Munich, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez once again proved his worth to the Leverkusen cause with a match-winning performance at Mainz.
Late show from Leverkusen
Travelling to the OPEL Arena to face a Mainz side who were on a three-match unbeaten run presented a tough test for a Leverkusen side with defensive frailties and a potential lack of confidence. Both problems were prominent in an opening half which Mainz looked the more composed and likely to score, but the manner of the opening goal symbolised the lack of organisation and shape at the back that Schmidt needs to address. From a Leverkusen attack, Mainz broke on the counter attack and managed to go clean through after Wendell, who made three errors which led to goals last season – the highest in the Bundesliga, made the wrong decision to vacate his left-back position; he was duly punished as Levin Oztunali raced clear and squared the ball to Yunus Malli for a simple tap-in. Leverkusen’s defending was made worse by Aleksandr Dragovic’s decision to try to play offside high up the pitch, but ultimately succeeded in playing both Mainz players onside.
His blushes were spared, albeit very briefly, as Leverkusen equalised straight away, with Hernandez showing superb control to bring Charles Aranguiz’s ball over the top down and dispatch it with ease past Jonas Lössl with his left foot. If Mainz were guilty of switching off after scoring, then the manner in which they regained the lead will have left Schmidt furious on the touchline. Dragovic, who was hauled off at half time for Jonathan Tah, made the criminal decision to duck as a corner was flicked on, with Stefan Bell left all alone to bundle the ball home from close range. It was synonymous with everything that has been wrong with Leverkusen at the back this season; poor decision-making, a lack of marking and failing to carry out the basics.
To their credit, Leverkusen came out with greater purpose in the second half, with their 66th minute equaliser down to a sensible tactical substitution from Schmidt and a large slice of luck. Until Stefan Kießling’s introduction a minute before the goal, Leverkusen were guilty of playing long balls up towards Hernandez and Kevin Volland who are not known for their aerial prowess, which led to possession being squandered. His first involvement in the game saw Kießling win an aerial challenge to divert the ball in the direction of Hernandez whose right-footed shot looped high off Alexander Hack and over Lössl into the back of the net. There was more than an element of fortune about the goal, but Hernandez followed the old proverb of “if you don’t buy a ticket, you won’t win the raffle.” Leverkusen looked the more likely of the two sides to grab a winner without creating any real clear-cut chances, but with a minute into the two added in stoppage time gone, Hernandez won three much-needed points for his team. Tah’s excellent long-range pass found the striker who had peeled away to the back post unmarked, and as Lössl ran off his line, Hernandez nipped in front of the goalkeeper to head the ball into an empty net to send the travelling Leverkusen fans into raptures and complete the perfect hat-trick – a rare feat for any professional footballer.
Value for money
Schmidt must still be pinching himself that, particularly in the current climate with crazy sums of money being spent across Europe, he managed to sign Hernandez from Manchester United for just €12.4 million last summer. The Mexican striker has more than paid back the investment to secure his services, with his hat-trick in Week 5 taking his record to a fantastic twenty-one goals in thirty-two appearances for Bayer. Manchester United’s loss has certainly been Leverkusen’s gain, and although Hernandez’s former team are 9/1 to win the Premier League in the latest football odds with odds correct at the time of writing on Coral’s website, moving away from Old Trafford has proven to be an excellent decision for his career. He was integral to everything that was good about the team last season as they stormed their way to finishing third, as his pace, awareness and clinical finishing ability saw him take to the Bundesliga in his first year like a duck to water. Schmidt and Leverkusen are unquestionably the benefactors of acquiring a player who simply wants regular game time and find the back of the net in the process, but given how disjointed they have been at times this season, particularly in the defeats to Freiburg and Gladbach, there is a danger that they could become too dependent on Hernandez to bail them out of jail.
That is not to suggest that Bayer Leverkusen are a one-man team, however, with another excellent summer of recruitment resulting in a number of gifted players arriving to add to a squad brimming with talent in every area. One of their young stars already at the club, Joel Pohjanpalo, has seemingly emerged from nowhere as a hugely promising goal-scoring striker, especially as the Finland international was not expected to see much game time ahead of Hernandez and Volland. His current form could see Pohjanpalo form a lethal partnership alongside Hernandez, and as Leverkusen are already blessed with young stars such as Julian Brandt, Benjamin Henrichs and Tah, the future certainly looks brighter than the present. How Schmidt manages to get the best from a talented squad, whilst also finding a solution to address a defence which has been error-prone and already cost Leverkusen, could ultimately define their season; the form in which they ended last season appears to have deserted them as they may struggle to compete for a top four finish at this rate, let alone challenge for the Bundesliga title. Even in victory at Mainz, there were numerous aspect of Leverkusen’s game that would come under the bracket ‘must do better,’ although this certainly doesn’t apply to Hernandez’s ability to finish with his left foot, right foot or head.
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