On the Road to Leverkusen

Tomorrow morning, after a big breakfast and a few hours of playing with my daughter, I’ll head out the door. I’ll be headed for the train station, overdressed for the current temperature, but prepared to be outdoors for some 8 hours. You see, I’ve got a ticket to the Leverkusen-Barcelona Champions League match and I’m pretty excited. Bay Arena, where Bayer Leverkusen play their home matches, sits about 200 kilometers north of where I’m sitting as I write these words, so obviously when the team of which you are a member ventures nearby, you make room in your busy holiday schedule to go see them. There are season parties to attend of course, but none will be as important to me as attending what is, for my team, a meaningless match.

Did you know Leverkusen is in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia? Of course you didn’t. You can write it in German as Nordrhein-Westfalen, but that’s not as totally weird sounding as North Rhine-Westphalia, which sounds like the time Homer impersonated a foreign exchange student. Sandwiched between Cologne and Düsseldorf, Leverkusen only has about 160,000 inhabitants, but Bayer Leverkusen, owned by the pharmaceutical giant Bayer, is hardly a podunk outfit in European football. You may remember their most successful foray in the Champions League like this, but it started in the Third Qualifying Round and then proceeded to the group stage where they came in runners up to a certain FC Barcelona.

The first match in the group stage between the two teams that year was at the Bay Arena when it had a capacity of just 22,000. It has since been expanded to 30,000, which should provide for some nice atmosphere and no doubt Lucho will appreciate that because he’s the guy that opened the scoring in that first encounter. That was just over 14 years ago and now Luis Enrique is plying his trade on the sideline. That was so long ago that there was a 19-year old unused substitute on Leverkusen’s bench named Dimitar Berbatov, who is now 85 years old (but still playing!). That match ended 2-1 to Leverkusen, but the return leg included another Lucho goal, this time a match winner and one that would eventually put Barcelona top of the group. This was also long enough ago that there was a second group stage after the first—whoa, remember that?—and Bayer came in tops of their group then. Barcelona ended up making it to the semifinals, but met the galacticos and were eliminated without scoring an actual goal (an Ivan Helguera own goal made it 1-3 on aggregate). Leverkusen somehow survived being beaten 4-0 by Juventus, but I suppose that’s the joy of a group stage.

Leverkusen were led by a plucky midfielder named Michael Ballack, then a 25 year old (still) rising star and backed by veteran defenders Lucio and Diego Placente (among others). That was a team that I thought of as truly German: efficient in front of goal and defensively solid. The thing was, their solidity wasn’t something real (and I don’t know that anyone else thought the way I did, anyway)—out of 17 matches, they achieved just 3 clean sheets and allowed 4 goals three times as well.

In this year’s Champions League, Leverkusen have yet to record a clean sheet and they’ve been hit for 3 and 4 goals in their matches against Roma. They also lost 2-1 at the Camp Nou, the winning goal scored by, yeah, well, you guessed it, a guy named Luis (or Lucho to lots of Spanish speakers). You can watch the highlights here. This encounter may be meaningless for Barcelona, given that we’ve already qualified in first place in the group regardless of the outcome of this match, but Leverkusen need to better Roma’s result against BATE Borisov in Rome in order to advance, so they’ll be pushing to win throughout.

I know I mentioned that they’re not a podunk outfit—and they’re not, not really—but Leverkusen haven’t done much else in the Champions League besides making it to that final. They did win UEFA Cup in 1987-88, and en route they beat, well, okay, I’m sure you saw this coming as soon as I mentioned UEFA Cup, FC Barcelona. Only one goal was scored over both legs in the quarterfinal matchup and it was scored in the Camp Nou by Tita, a Brazilian who plied his trade in Germany for just 1 year. So that was a bit different than the 2-1 scorelines we’ve seen so far, but at least the final had two 3-0 scorelines (the final was over 2 legs) and it was Leverkusen coming out winners against Espanyol. Hooray, I guess!

The weird thing about this team that has been a strong force in German football for a while is that they have never won the Bundesliga and they’ve only ever won 1 top flight domestic trophy: the 1992-93 German Cup (DFB Pokal). I was a bit stunned when I read that, actually, thinking they must have won at some point in their history. They were founded in 1904 after all, which is where their full team name comes from: Bayer 04 Leverkusen Fußball GmbH. That just seems odd given how big their name is in Germany, but I did know about them as the Almost Champions. Their squad, though, boasts some pretty accomplished players, some current stars, some up-and-coming stars, and Chicharito. See what I did there?

Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Admir Mehmedi, and Julian Brandt are all 21 or under and are spectacular to watch, especially Çalhanoğlu. Kevin Kampl (he of the ew-thats-a-bad-haircut), Lars Bender, and especially Stefan Kießling are more veteran players capable of controlling matches. And there’s also Chicarito. The thing about the Little Pea is that he’s only 27 (which admittedly is older than both Kampl and Bender) and he’s obviously capable of scoring goals, but he’s also wildly inconsistent. For Real Madrid he scored just 9 goals in 33 appearances. In his first year at Manchester United, he scored 20 in 45. In his last real season for United, he scored 9 in 35. And this year for Leverkusen, he has scored 13 in 18 and was named Player of the Month for November in a league where Robert Lewandowski has collected a Super Star and is currently just getting one ups every time he touches the ball. So that’s something.

Given that they have to field their best possible 11 just to give themselves the best chance of winning and Barcelona are unlikely to start their best 11, this seems like Leverkusen are going to win. But then again, Leverkusen played out a 4-4 draw with Roma and then lost to them 3-2 before drawing 1-1 with BATE as Barcelona thumped Roma to give them a shout at getting into the knockout rounds. They’re 8th in the Bundesliga (don’t laugh, Chelsea fans) and have actually only won 1 match in the CL. The only match they won during that month where Chicharito earned his plaudits was against Eintracht Frankfurt (a match I should have attended to file a scouting report), which tells you either that Chicharito is being overhyped or that the team surrounding him is basically a dysfunctional collection of torsos and flailing limbs. The only redeeming factors of this November run is that one of the losses and the draw were to higher ranked teams in the table and their other loss was to their local rival, FC Köln (Cologne, in English).

What all of this means in the greater narrative arc of the season for Barcelona—probably just a blip on the radar—it will at least be something monumental for my fandom. You see, it’s my first Champions League match and even if it’s “meaningless,” it should still provide for a fun evening. And maybe a fun afternoon beforehand either in Leverkusen itself or more likely in nearby Cologne where the Christmas markets are in full swing. Or maybe we’ll sit in a bar in Leverkusen watching the big Bayer sign. Either way, I’ll be as giddy as a Santa Claus that finds whiskey and beer-battered shrimp instead of more cookies waiting next to a Christmas tree. And I’ll also be wearing thermals because it’s going to dip near freezing tomorrow night during the game and that might include a thick layer of fog. And Chicharito.

chicharito-sad

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.

20 Comments

  1. Davour
    December 8, 2015

    Thanks for the perspective – enjoy!

    On tonights results: got to hand it to old CR, going all in during a game that means nothing, all to rack up them goals. Messi is trailing and we (and he) shouldn’t care. Unfortunate with Neymar’s injury, but if it’s not too bad, it can grant him som rest.

    And Man U – not easy for them…

    Hopefully we’ll see a midfield including Samper tomorrow – might be fun to see how he manages.

  2. luisthebeast
    December 8, 2015

    I hope it will be a fun game and you will enjoy it!!For next round i wish Barca come to Greece to face Olympiacos(Poor Arsenal have no chance)so i will watch live the team!But my personal desire aside i would like Chelsea then PSG then Juventus.I dont really care to face PSV or Benfica or Wolfsburg!CL is to all about to beat the best(Too bad we cant face ourselves)!And i hope Ney have nothing serious and he will play the CWC final!

  3. luisthebeast
    December 8, 2015

    The difference between LFC and United is simple.LFC won CL in 2005 and play the final in 2007 with a mediocre squad.I will start to worry about English teams in CL when LFC build a strong squad.Then we will have a real danger.Same about Milan.

    • Jim
      December 9, 2015

      Hmm, ten minutes in and we’re in a bit of bother from their pressing. LE never does things in halves does he ? Can’t argue with any of the rested ones individually but you’d have thought he could have left either of Busi or Ini in and I’m not sure it’s a good idea to leave Messi to lead the line on his own . Might tempt him into trying to do too much if we go behind and risking injury.

      It’ll be interesting to see how long they keep this up and how we settle.

  4. Davour
    December 9, 2015

    Seems Messi is treating this game as a sparring session, to gain fitness. He does not seem to care much, really (nor should he). But it strikes me, in light of all the individual accolades discussed, how one player cannot make a team. He can make a difference, sure, but not carry an entire team. Impossible. The contrast with EE’s “reserves” yesterday is striking, but I support LE’s decision to rest key players. Samper is doing rather well, I think, despite some silly mistakes due to inexperience and over-ambition. Kaptoum had a few moments, but could not do much. Munir is having a terrible, terrible game, despite working hard, and Sandro is nowhere to be seen. Wonder why LE is asking for a forward transfer in January…

    One is struck by the immense quality of the rested players. Alba must be missing Ney and Ini like crazy…

    • Dar_vincy
      December 9, 2015

      Why I understand Leverkusen are needful of this match more than we do couple with the fact we have basically nothing to play for save pride, it doesn’t really excuse the shocking defensive display from the team. We really seem loose in that regard. It really was too repulsive and unsavory to persevere with continued viewing. The gulf in class between our starters and our reserves really is insufferably mastodonic. This comment isn’t aimed towards agitating for a win- even in a meaningless match like this. Rather, a cry to see a disciplined performance defensively at least.

    • Davour
      December 9, 2015

      That is just not good enough, Sandro. Get me a Larsson, instead. Hell, give Larsson himself! Sandro will have to go somewhere else, and Munir needs to visit the gym. But good for Ter Stegen, this – a real shoot-out, and he came out on top!

      Hope for a good draw, now. Not PSG…

  5. G6O
    December 9, 2015

    This was embarrassing.

    I don’t expect the young players to be at the level of Xavi and Iniesta. But if you have made it so far in the footballing hierarchy of the world that you appear for the first team of FC Barcelona in a Champions League game, there is a strong expectation that you will play better than Sunday league pub team-level, i.e. you will be comfortable controlling ans accurately passing the ball. That wasn’t the case today…

    • Davour
      December 9, 2015

      Yes, but to me Samper had a better game than e.g. Adriano. Bartra was sloppy, Rakitic, too, etc. The regulars did not take this seriously. My view on Sandro and Munir are clear above…

    • G6O
      December 9, 2015

      I didn’t have Samper in mind. He is not ready either, and lost the ball on multiple occasions, but overall the talent is there. But Munir, Kaptoum, etc. were just disgusting today.

  6. Jim
    December 9, 2015

    That was actually quite an interesting game. Because of BT’s rubbish interactive ( read can’t record, rewind etc.) I decided to watch Samper throughout the match since I’d been basing my opinion of him on fleeting appearances. Thoughts…..

    The not so good
    First ten minutes were shaky but then I think by then he whole team had given away the ball
    He occasionally doesn’t get goal side of the man he’s marking
    For his height he doesn’t seem to relish headering the ball
    He doesn’t have an abundance of pace although he’s not slow

    The rest ……
    This guy was awesome ! We were under the cost the whole game so it was some test
    He had nothing to work with in midfield. Rakitic and Kaptoum/ Gumbau too far apart to get any passing going and didn’t show all that much either
    His control and passing are Barca class. No greater compliment. Especially since the blonde haired guy had instructions to close him down and stop play coming through him.
    He made several vital interceptions
    He keeps possession in difficult situations and turns them into decent possession.
    He has the vision to play in our midfield. Sees the way to turn and the unusual angled pass.

    Considering he was limping the whole time after his clash with the keeper I can’t doubt his heart either. Was sure Gumbau was coming on for him. A keeper not a loaner but then look at the number of midfielders we will have next season.

    The rest of what I saw wasn’t great. But tbh we will always struggle against a determined team with a high press like this until they tire. The disappointment came when they tired and we still struggled going forward.

    Also thought TS had a great game, instilling confidence. Other than that the back line en masse were underwhelming although they stuck to it, Rakitic did his disappearing act for most of the game but had a couple of great passes while Kaptoum showed some nice touches on the ball but looked a little excitable . Difficult for Gumbau coming on in a game like that so I’m reluctant to judge him.

    Up front Messi strolled through the game which I was glad about but when you realise that doing that he was still miles better than the other two that tells you that neither will be here next season. I don’t mind that they can’t beat people ( well I do really) but they’ve got to be able to find Messi when they get the chance.

    All in all we came through it. But more importantly gave the first stringers some rest. So all good – apart from Neymar. Did anyone see him hobbling out after half time ? That looks a bad one. Groin trouble is never good and that was a worrying sight for me. I wouldnt be surprised if he’s out for four or five weeks.

  7. TITO
    December 9, 2015

    On Samper – he has the quality to play for us and even be promoted next season in the first team next to.more experience players, but he is still not there, not yet.
    Munir – well, you could have think that after two.seasons with the first team he learned thing or two, but, i would send him as far as away from.us.
    Anyway, we got the result, most of first teamers rested…so it wasnt a bad evening after all.

  8. luisthebeast
    December 9, 2015

    Wow Lucho is dont afraid anything!Well it s ok to play the youngsters against Bate or Benfica at home(A similar perfomance like today with Thiago Rafhinia Roberto and others and we were lucky to draw)but to go with Samper and Kaptoum against a german team away(United already had that experience)is brave!!Midfield is the heart of our play and i believe we are lucky that a great talent like Samper is here!Kaptoum is very young!Sandro and Munir needs Much playing time!I wish Grimaldo will have also a chance until the end of season to play in some games!Loan is the best solution because with Turan and Vidal where Lucho will find minutes for all??Maybe against La Coruna Samper can start!!And i was suprised by Arsenal,i never expected that!Olympiacos played so stupid game!

  9. December 10, 2015

    LE has big balls. That midfield was sheer balls. Their terrific pressing would have caused issues even if it was our first eleven. So the 1-1 looks a very good result.
    Excellent show by TS. Inspite of some negative Samper was good. He has very similar qualities to Busquets, some of which has been detailed above by Jim. I loved his turnings with the ball. All what he needs is more playing time – together with 2 of our gala mid fielders – and he will be fine. Hopefully LE wont throw him out with Kaptoum or Gumbau as company. That wont be good for him, I guess.

    I was also really impressed by Camara, even if for the few minutes.

    I didnt like Bojan at all, but looking at Munir and Sandro, I wish Bojan was with us. I really really hope we wont continue with these two.

    Messi seems to have some fitness issues, I think. I hope he isnt covering up.

  10. mr.undercover
    December 10, 2015

    Well. The team performance was terrible to watch. I can take excuses from the youngsters considering that’s its was their first CL match, but the rest of the team played outrageously. Adriano is a fraud, am still baffled how the extended his contract. Alba seemed lost but I don’t blame him. Bartra is unreliable and lacks composure+ confidence, munir is turning to something else, completely irrelevant he couldn’t even dribble pass his marker and gifting passes to the opponents that’s was diffi to watch tbh.

  11. luisthebeast
    December 10, 2015

    In that ages 19-20 the most important is playing time!You cant expect from a player to play a game in CL after playing in Segunda B and be all good!The evolution of Sandro Munir Samper depends a lot in what will happen in January!Halilovic play every week with Gihon and that will make him a better player with time!We are very harsh with Munir and Sandro!And people talk about Deulofeu but i know that if was not from La Masia and someone watched a game with Everton,he would say that he is not good for Barca!So i believe the best will be to loan Sandro and Munir in a Spanish team like Gihon!

  12. Jim
    December 10, 2015

    Samper highlights. Yeah, just your average B teamers debut against a high pressing top European side who had to win and surrounded by a less than stellar cast.

    (Sorry, motivated by a Total Barca review where “none of the B teamers covered themselves in glory and Samper’s defensive deficiencies were obvious.” That’ll account for the 47 out of 52 passes successfully completed and ball recovered nine times, then ? ). At the age of 20 ???

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=he-B2imrcKY

  13. luisthebeast
    December 10, 2015

    Well now that Samper is playing and earned the trust of Lucho will the moaning of fans stop??No offcourse!!Grimaldo is the new story!!And offcourse one assist of Deulofeu against Crapcity Warriors or a fantastic run by the new Douglas Costa aka Adama Traore against a u-15 team!Or a player from our Infantil A side who wants more playing time with first team but Bad Lucho dont trust him!Stupid Lucho u must watch Benjamin sides games!Are we the only fanbase in the world doing that??

  14. luisthebeast
    December 10, 2015

    But i must admit that looking at the amazing perfomances of Montoya(He is so good at trainings that Mancini dont use hin at all by fear that the opposite team will not come to play)Fabregas and Pedro(Porto lost against Chelsea because they had a plan how to stop that two and they did nt play)Tello(Porto want to buy him but not for 8m that is the option but for less,maybe we will give them some money)Cuenca(He must play somewhere)maybe just maybe we are keeping the good and send away the rest???

    • georgjorge
      December 11, 2015

      You mean the rest, failures like Sanchez or Thiago?

      I have a high opinion of Lucho but your putting up of strawmen and putting down of other Barca fans is uncalled for.

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