November 21, 2017

Joel Pohjanpalo: A New Star is Born in Leverkusen

After the first seven matches of Bundesliga MatchDay 2, two players co-led the league in goals scored. One was the great Bayern Munich striker, Robert Lewandowski, who had a hat-trick on MatchDay One against Werder Bremen and netted Friday against Schalke.  World-famous and always subject to rumors of his move to a big English club, the Polish international combines great athleticism with sublime skills, a determined outlook and a cool approach in front of goal to be one of the game’s greatest strikers.

Also with four goals after two matches is a Bundelsiga newcomer, Joel Pohjanpalo, 21 years old, of Bayer 04 Leverkusen.  He’s scored his goals in two substitute appearances.  Against Hamburger SV Saturday, with his club trailing 0-1, the native of Helsinki came on in the 72nd minute and got the equalizer, game-winner and insurance goal to earn all three points for Die Werkself.  He only had 10 touches, but struck paydirt three times with his three shot attempts.  Last week against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Pohjanpalo came on in the 78th minute and scored the equalizer a minute later from a Karim Bellarabi header (although it wasn’t enough as the Foals’ Lars Stindl netted the winner in the 85′ minute).  In 30 minutes on the pitch this season, the young sensation has four goals, crucial goals at that.

The striker began his career with HJK Helsinki.  At the age of 16, playing with HJK’s reserve side, he scored 33 times in 24 matches.  A move to the Finnish club’s senior squad came quickly and he prospered there also, netting 16 times in 50 matches.  After trials with Liverpool FC and AS Monaco, the youngster signed with Leverkusen.and went on loan spells with VfR Aalen and Fortuna Düsseldorf, where he made the most of his loan spells, producing 18 goals in 77 matches in Germany’s second division.

And now he’s in Germany’s first division.  If his introduction to top-class football last matchday drew headlines, his performance off the bench against HSV Saturday was truly spectacular.  He not only kept Roger Schmidt’s team from entering MatchDay 3 with zero points, but his goals and the subsequent win made for a happy home opener for Werkself supporters.  With Bayer Leverkusen beginning Champions League competition this week, Pohjanpalo’s performance was even more important as the club goes into the tournament with some momentum,  The Finn not only perfectly filled the German ‘joker’ role (goalscoring super substitute) but also had a particularly German hat trick, as his three consecutive, unanswered strikes fit the traditional (and stricter) requirements for a ‘true’ hat trick in Germany.  A Here’s how he did it….

Goal One  After entering the game as a replacement for Admir Mehmedi, who worked his socks off to no avail, HSV were only 18 minutes away from an upset road victory.  Leverkusen had lost attacker Karim Bellarabi early to injury, with the German international replaced by Olympian Julian Brandt. Pohjanpalo had his first touch of the match quickly after chccking in, as the hard-working Kevin Kampl passed to him out of the back following a Hamburg free kick. Five minutes later, the young Finn was sprung down the right flank and was able to get off a shot, which was blocked but went for a Leverkusen CK.  In the 79th minute, however, with Leverkusen in HSV’s third of the field,  Kampl brilliantly slid a throughball inside the HSV box to Julian Brandt, who popped a short cross into the air where Pohjanpalo could easily head it in to a wide open net after Rene Adler had raced out to stop Brandt’s menacing run after Kampl’s pass. Pohjanpalo had kept the play alive before Kampl’s throughball when he maintained possession after handling an awkward pass from Brandt that was a bit too hot.  Leverkusen were level at 1-1, but the Finn was far from done.

Goal Two  Pohjanpalo treated onlookers to some fancy dribbling iu the 80th minute when he avoided a red-shorts defender with a spin move on the dribble while cutting in from the touchline.  Four minutes later, Pohjanpalo attempted a bicycle kick but whiffed on the Benjamin Henrichs cross after the young back had intercepted a ball and lifted it from near the corner to the middle of the box.  Pohjanpalo had another touch with one minute left in regulation, but was unable to win possession of a long kick from Leverkusen keeper Bernd Leno and it certainly looked like Leverkusen would share points with the visitors.  But Henrichs, who had just switched to left back following Wendell being subbed by Tin Jedvaj, provided a wonderful side-footed short cross which Pohjanpalo buried into the HSV net on a perfectly-taken shot. 2-1 Leverkusen in injury time, but the Finn was still not done.

Goal Three Three minutes into injury time, Pohjanpalo struck again.  Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez unselfishly passed up a shot and delivered the ball to the Helsinki hero, who fired to Adler’s right with a low shot from inside the box. An insurance goal with injury time about to expire by the kid who provided the equalizer and the winner  Not bad.  A 3-1 win for Die Werkself on a day where Bellarabi got injured, Chicharito was slow to have any effect after coming back from a fractured hand (still wrapped) and Leno had a few shaky moments, including the slow reaction to an onrushing Bobby Wood, who leapfrogged the German international and gave HSV a lead as he shot into the vacated Leverkusen goal.

Joel Pohjanpalo had the day that we all dream about it.  His emergence gives Leverkusen Coach Roger Schmidt even more attacking options going into a period of fixture congestion until the next international break in October.  That option looms large if Bellarabi is sidelined and Stefan Kiessling can’t recover soon from his injuries.

The Finnish striker’s tremendous performance was far from a one-man show, however.  He was provided with three excellent passes to work his magic, and he was quick to praise the quality of his teammates after the match.  Pohjanpalo is no overnight sensation, either.  Although he’s had to wait three years for his Leverkusen debut, he not only estaablished himself during his loan spells but has already earned 20 senior caps for Finland, scoring four international goals.

As Die Werkself prepare to kickoff their latest Champions League group efforts against CSKA Moscow Wednesday, it’s worth noting the number of very talented, very young, players that play for Die Werkself. Pohjanpalo was not the only exceptional youngster featuring for Leverkusen Saturday, as defender Jonathan Tah and fullback Henrichs also had strong matches and Brandt earned an assist.  All four are 21 years old or younger.  If Schmidt can erase the ‘neverkusen’ mentality from this squad (and he’s made great strides towards that), watch out world, because this can be a very very good club this season.

 

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Gerry Wittmann

Gerry is the founder of the Bundesliga Fanatic. Besides loving German football, he also enjoys the NBA, collecting jerseys and LPs, his pets and wishes he had more time for fishing, bicycling and learning the bass guitar.

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