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.