With their league form in woeful shape, Bayer Leverkusen started their Europa League campaign with a come from behind victory against Ludogorets in Bulgaria 3-2. Heiko Herrlich made four changes to the squad following their 3-1 loss to Bayern last weekend, including the first starts at the club for Isaac Thelin as well as the Brazilian youngster Paulinho.
Unfortunately the hosts started brighter and were leading after just 8 minutes through a free kick by Claudiu Keseru that left Lukas Hradecky well beaten at his near post. In the 16th minute a quick Leverkusen counter attack saw the Swede Thelin bring the ball down in the box, but he wasn’t able to get a shot off. They continued to grow into the game and looked to have a penalty shout as Paulinho was brought down from behind while attempting to shoot, but Referee Paolo Mazzoleni saw nothing in it.
With the hosts already ahead, they were clearly content to sit back and let Bayer attack before hitting them on the counter, but a rare bit of possession enabled the Bulgarians to double their lead. A bit of slick passing helped put wide man Wanderson clear of Mitchell Weiser and his perfect low pass found Marcelinho for a nice tap in. Leverkusen quickly found a response as Kai Havertz’s low shot in the 38th minute beat the keeper. Both sides continued to create opportunities, but the sides went into the tunnel with a 2-1 scoreline.
Herrlich chose to change up his tactics, replacing Paulinho at halftime with Kevin Volland in order to have 2 strikers on the field. Die Werkself continued to apply pressure and it paid off as a low shot from Julian Brandt was parried but the rebound fell kindly for Isaac Thelin who restored parity to the match after 63 minutes.
Just six minutes later and Leverkusen were in the lead as Havertz found some space at the top of the box and his right footed shot curled past the keeper to give the travelling supports a joyous and deserved lead. The hosts continued to look for a response and in the last ten minutes a corner kick was headed on to the back post, but the final touch to guide it in was missing. Not wanting to let up and give Ludogorets a chance to equalize Leon Bailey was sent on in the 73rd minute for Lars Bender and nearly scored for himself in the 88th minute, but he pushed his shot wide. One final substitute from Herrlich brought saw Lucas Alario get a short run out in injury time for Thelin, but he wasn’t able to make much of an impact as Leverkusen were able to start Group A with three points. Die Werkself will be hoping to carry this momentum with them into the weekend as they host Mainz on Sunday.
In the other Group A match FC Zurich were able to snatch 3 points in Cyprus with a 1-0 victory of AEK Larnaca. Benjamin Kololli scored from the spot in the 61st minute and the Swiss side held their nerve despite going down to ten men late in the match.
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