As if the game did not have high enough stakes already just by virtue of being played under the midweek floodlights of the Champions League. For Bayer Leverkusen, a win at the BayArena against Chelsea would mean a ticket punched for the knockout stage of club football’s most prestigious competition.
To compound the pressure, both teams had to start the contest missing a key player from their respective starting XI’s, with Leverkusen’s André Schürrle lacking fitness on the tail end of a bout with the flu and Chelsea’s ever present left back Ashley Cole out of the squad with an ankle injury.
Leverkusen take initiative
From the start of the match it would be Chelsea, though that felt that pressure. Cagey and cautious was their approach from the outset, their tentativeness showing they had made the trip to Germany in hopes not to lose, rather than looking to win. The visiting English were playing reserved, and Bayer Leverkusen acted a rude host, not allowing their opposition the time and space on the ball they were hoping for. The Werkself closed down the Blues quickly after every pass, forcing one terrible first touch after another. Terry and Luiz, Chelsea’s centre halves mishit most of their passes; the Blues’ central midfield triumvirate were blanketed from any meaningful possesion; and although they managed a couple of easily collected shots from distance, Chelsea were not allowed to settle into the game.
While Bayer repeatedly pumped the ball into the box from the feet of former Chelsea star Michael Ballack and central midfield partner Lars Bender, it was not until the 33rd minute that Leverkusen’s dogged effort paid off in the form of a chance at goal. From a Gonzalo Castro corner kick, the masked Ballack rose to sharply whip a headed ball toward the visitors’ goal, only to be denied by the crossbar by the slimmest of margins and see his former employers clear the danger.
Ballack’s clanging of the bar served as a wakeup call for the visitors from London and Chelsea began to hit back. Leverkusen left back Michal Kadlec was beaten by Chelsea’s Juan Mata for a shot; the ever dangerous Didier Drogba split Bayer’s centre halves only to float the finish over top a sprawling Bernd Leno and his Leverkusen goal; Frank Lampard indecisively stood over a ball at the top of the box before sliding it over to youngster Daniel Sturridge [whom had set up all of the previous chances] for a long rage effort—Chelsea were making waves as the half wound toward its conclusion, but at every turn would either fail to deliver the finished product or be denied by the perfectly positioned Leno.
Bayer became frustrated amidst the Chelsea dominance of possession at the end of the half and quite needlessly collected themselves three rash yellow cards as they tried to keep their opponents back. But just before time expired, Bayer would get its second shot and second shout at goal from a corner as centre back Manuel Friedrich got up to send a Castro out swinger on its way to goal before Chelsea spoiled the party and cleared the experienced defender’s effort mere metres from hitting pay dirt.
An early breakdown, tactical switches and a happy ending
To flatly say the match livened up after the restart would be an understatement. Just three minutes in, further great work from Daniel Sturridge saw a ball floated over the Bayer back line and onto the foot of Drogba. The Ivorian held off marker Friedrich, turned and expertly slotted his chance just inside the post for a 1-0 Chelsea advantage. Not pleased with a single goal, Chelsea kept their hosts on the back foot and wasted no time in trying to double their lead. The Blues nearly added a pair of tallies as Lampard and right back Branislav Ivanović were set up by Drogba with chances on the edge of the box, but were quickly denied by the superb Leno.
Things would then slow down a bit when Ivanović was shown a yellow card for a challenge on Sidney Sam, followed quickly by the bringing on of Schürrle in the place of right back Daniel Schwaab. Leverkusen used that time to collect themselves a bit. The Werkself faithful were not amused by the start to the half, nor was their hero, Capitano Ballack; and when play finally returned to the English end of the pitch, Leverkusen’s masked man did his best to get his side back on terms. Twice from set pieces, Ballack beat his marker to the ball and twice made Chelsea scramble. Both, however—the first being a rather ambitious, to say nothing of impressive, bicycle kick—were denied by fellow mask wearer and Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Čech. The unmistakable keeper then rejected a Stefan Kießling header from point black range, forcing Leverkusen to continue chasing the game. Leverkusen supporters were beginning to ask themselves if anything was going their way on the night.
Two more Chelsea chances were turned away before Bayer made their second switch, bringing on Eren Derdiyok in place of a Kadlec run ragged by the exuberant Sturridge. Immediately, the Swiss international’s impact was felt. Seventeen minutes from time, he—accidentally, if we’re honest—dummied a pass from his right through to an onrushing Sam, continued toward the back post and caught a return cross from Sam at the top of the six yard box. Full of class and composure, Derdiyok nodded the ball into the goal to bring the score level.
Chelsea, sensing they had lost their grip on the run of play, crumbled. They rushed the ball forward and hurled the ball into the box any chance they had. On one of these box feeding occasions, Drogba swore he was fouled in the box by an aggressive Bender and watched from his seat on the grass as Bayer swept the ball up, sent it on down the pitch and missed a go ahead strike from the foot of the industrious Derdiyok by a few inches of the right post.
At this point, if either side were going to take all three points and a spot in the Champions League’s last sixteen, it would be Leverkusen. And in injury time, the Werkself booked their stay in the next round of the competition. Castro stood over yet another hard-earned corner and sent another fine ball into the box for his comrades in black. Friedrich found separation, leapt high and powered the ball to the back of the net via crossbar right at the death for a 2-1 Leverkusen victory.
Bluntly, despite being the lesser of the two sides in terms of skill, Leverkusen outworked Chelsea on the day to earn all three points. Robin Dutt and his men truly “beat the money” by way of pressing, remaining patient [with exception to those few minutes before the interval] and putting all of their full scoring chances on frame. Persistence paid off and Leverkusen reaped the rewards in the end.
For all the recent talk about Dutt not being suited to a club at such a level as Bayer, today he and his charges certainly looked a good fit for each other. Dutt’s tactical switches really paid off as Schürrle put in an effective and energetic shift, Derdiyok brought the club level and Oczipka helped batten down the hatches to freeze Chelsea out for the win.
The Blues, on the other hand, are in trouble. The west Londoners have now dropped four of their last five matches, sit in fifth place in the Premiership [a full 12 points off the title pace] and are now in danger of not qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages for the first time since Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich took over the side in 2003. To go through to the round of 16 now, they must down Spanish challengers Valencia at Stamford Bridge in early December.
If shaky performances like these continue, even before that date with the Spaniards, young André Villas-Boas may just find himself out of a job.
Man of the match
Eren Derdiyok—Yes, he only played the final 20 minutes; and yes, Michael Ballack did serve as the inspirational force behind the never-say-die Werkself long before the Swiss striker’s introduction; but there can be no denying Derdiyok’s impact on the game. His work with Sam—entirely intentional or not—turned the match on its head. If he settles that first pass, the score line probably reads differently. Even after his marker, he continued to trouble the Blues back four, forcing a couple of corners and dragging the centre backs out of position with intelligent runs.
Images courtesy of Bundesliga.de and spox.com