Bayer 04 Leverkusen scored a remarkable 2-1 comeback win over Valencia Wednesday in Champions League action at the BayArena. Remarkable? A team coming back from only a 1-0 halftime deficit?
The victory was remarkable considering the absolutely abysmal performance of Leverkusen during the first half. Rarely does a team with the talent of Die Werkself exhibit such poor play in an important game in front of their home crowd. The win places Leverkusen 2nd in Champions League Group E with six points, one behind Group leaders Chelsea.
One cannot overemphasize the difference in quality between the Spanish visitors and the home club in the first half. Coach Unai Emery had his club ready to play high-quality football, while Die Werkself appeared an amateur side wearing Leverkusen kit. After fifteen minutes, Valencia had earned 70% of the possession, and it wasn’t just “play keep away” possession — it was probing and dangerous possession. Thankfully, teenaged goalkeeper Bernd Leno had his head in the game in a manner in which his teammates so obviously didn’t, denying every Valencia attempt save Brazilian Jonas’ quality goal in the 24th minute, which was gifted by Leverkusen’s Keystone Kops defending and, particularly, Stefan Reinartz clumsy attempt at a clearance inside the box. Reinartz ”clearance” rolled directly to Roberto Soldado, who calmly passed the ball to Jonas. The Brazilian’s well-placed shot gave Leno no opportunity for more heroics, and Valencia had a deserved 1-0 lead that should have been more but for Leno’s efforts.
Leverkusen’s attack in the first half duplicated their defensive disarray. With attackers the quality of Kiessling, Schurrle, Sam and Ballack, it was quite disturbing for any Leverkusen fan,or Bundesliga fan pulling for German clubs in Europe, to witness such a display. Not only ineffective, the entire team, save Leno, appeared sluggish and uninformed as to the importance of Wednesday’s competition. Only a brief moment of attacking light, courtesy of a Schurrle long-range shot and a Ballack header with about five minutes remaining before intermission, broke the dark clouds hanging over Leverkusen’s efforts. Both efforts were expertly denied by Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves, and the Spanish club brilliantly pulled off a risky offside trap on an ensuing Leverkusen free kick to destroy what little momentum that Leverkusen had built. To add to Leverkusen’s misery, Captain Simon Rolfes and Kiessling also drew yellow cards midway through the half, with Ballack looking to draw one too with his badgering of the officials.
But we all know the fickleness of the gods of football, and how they frown on wasted opportunities. Held to one goal by Leno and the woodwork, the gods wagged their fingers in reprimand of the Spaniards’ first half inability to seize the moment and run with it.
Prior to the matchup with Valencia, first year Leverkusen Coach Robin Dutt remarked on the importance of the game. “This is almost like a cup final for us. If we don’t beat Valencia at home then we’ll have to go and get a win at Valencia.” Although the squad certainly didn’t get the message during the first intermission, Dutt’s urgency must have echoed throughout the locker room during halftime, and the club took it to heart.
Only seven minutes after play resumed, a fine cross by Michal Kadlec found Andres Schurrle, who deftly found the back of the net to equalize, and Leverkusen were back from the dead. Four minutes later, Sidney Sam gave Die Werkself the winner. He streaked down the right flank with a fine pass from Ballack, and left-footed his trademark curling shot into the top corner of the net.
Still, over 30 minutes remained and Leverkusen occasionally slipped back into a lackluster run of ineffectiveness, but those moments of relapse were fortunately short-lived and more than balanced out by a dangerous free kick from substitute Eren Derdiyok and a threatening run by Schurrle that resulted in a shot right at Alves. Leno kept Valencia at bay despite their pressure and energy, and a dangerous late scramble in front of Leno goal was kicked to safety by the outstretched leg of Omer Toprak. Leno ended up making six saves in the match — his quality and maturity have been a life-saver for Leverkusen thus far, and wonders what will happen when the loanee returns to Stuttgart at the end of the Hinrunde.
This comeback match could mark will hopefully mark a turning point in Leverkusen’s fortunes. Valencia came into Wednesday’s Champions League match in relatively good form. After seven domestic matches, Los Che have won four and drawn two, with a plus 3 goal differential. Though in fifth place in the Spanish league, they trail leaders Barcelona by only three points. (It has to be said though, that three of Valencia’s four wins this season have been against relegation candidates Granada, Racing Santander and Sporting Gijon, and their other against 11th place Atletico Madrid). Last season Valencia finished a distant third in La Liga behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, but has been consistently involved in European competition the last years under Coach Unai Emery.
Meanwhile, Bayer Leverkusen are currently eighth in the Bundesliga with a 4-2-3 record, with a -1 GD after finishing second to Borussia Dortmund last season. Dutt is in his first season leading a “big” club, and this season also provides Dutt, 46, with his first taste of European competition as either a player or coach. Since summer Dutt has had to deal with the transfer of last year’s Leverkusen standout, Arturo Vidal; the injuries to starting goalkeeper Rene Adler and backup Fabian Giefer; the challenge of fitting a healthy but older Michael Ballack into the lineup in a manner that benefits both the player and the team; and club management’s decision to go with a relatively small squad for a team involved in Champions League competition. The team’s opening round Pokal loss to Dynamo Dresden didn’t endear the new coach to club supporters, and he’s received criticism for his lineup rotations and the team’s inconsistency. And Dutt also has to deal with the “Neverkusen” history that hangs over the club.
But Wednesday’s bounceback against a solid, energized Valencia side may be exactly what Dutt and his team needed to bond and perform more consistently. Certainly the players should have more faith in their new leader despite his lack “big club/big game” credentials, and Dutt can take heart in the fact that his team only trail Chelsea by a point after three matches in his inaugural CL campaign. That might be a winning combination of trust and confidence for the club.
Bayer: Leno – Castro, Reinartz (M. Friedrich 46′), Toprak, Kadlec - Rolfes, L. Bender – Sam (Schwaab 90+1′), Ballack, Schürrle - Kießling (Derdiyok 81′)
Valencia: Diego Alves – Miguel, Rami, Victor Ruiz, Jordi Alba (Canales 65′) – Pablo Hernandez (Feghouli 65′), Albelda (Aduriz 82′), Ever Banega, Mathieu, – Soldado, Jonas
Stats: Shots - Leverkusen 13, Valancia 17; Shots on Goal – Leverkusen 7, Valencia 7; Possession -Leverkusen 40%, Valencia 60%, Corner Kicks – Leverkusen 4, Valencia 7, Passes Completed – Leverkusen 63%, Valencia 78%