One of the most interesting things about football is the relatively unsmooth way that performances often translate into results: each season features multiple matches in which the better side loses, with the strength of overall displays not necessarily reflected in the scoreline that emerges at the end of the 90 minutes.
One such example could be found at Camp Nou three weeks ago, when Bayer Leverkusen were defeated 2-1 by Barcelona in the Champions League despite outplaying their illustrious opponents for long periods of the game.
That setback has made Leverkusen’s clash with Roma on Tuesday night even more important than it already was: with BATE Borisov set to face Barca home and away in their next two encounters, the Germans’ back-to-back meetings with Rudi Garcia’s side could decide who advances to the knockout round from Group E alongside the tournament’s current holders.
Roger Schmidt has made Leverkusen one of the most watchable teams on the continent, with the Bundesliga outfit committed to a high-tempo, hard-pressing and attacking brand of football. Most other sides would have adapted or diluted such natural tendencies for a trip to Camp Nou, but Leverkusen instead opted to impose themselves on Barcelona and were massively unfortunate to leave Catalonia empty-handed.
Schmidt’s charges came flying out of the traps, making their intentions clear by aggressively pushing forward in the opening stages. They almost got off to the perfect start, Javier Hernandez testing goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen 67 seconds in after some fine work down the right by the terrific Karim Bellarabi.
Lining up in an ambitious 4-4-2 formation – Bellarabi, usually deployed on the wing, was pushed up top just behind Hernandez, with Kevin Kampl and Hakan Calhanoglu manning the flanks – Leverkusen closed down Barcelona high up the pitch and sprang forward quickly whenever the ball was turned over. The average age of the starting XI was just over 23, with the team’s youthfulness helping them to carry out their high-octane approach.
The visitors’ pressing was excellent throughout the first half, with passing options for the man in possession routinely shut off. Barcelona were also forced to play the ball out wide rather than through the centre as they prefer, with Sergio Busquets dropping so deep that the Catalans’ formation resembled a 3-4-3, the Spain international tucked in between Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano at centre-back.
Leverkusen thoroughly deserved the lead that was given to them by Kyriakos Papadopoulos midway through the first period, and continued to dominate for the remainder of the half. Although their attacks became more sporadic after the interval, they were desperately unlucky to lose to goals from Sergi Roberto and Luis Suarez in the final 10 minutes.
Schmidt’s side’s fate is still in their own hands, with Tuesday’s encounter with Roma likely to be pivotal to their chances of progressing: a win would put Leverkusen five points clear of the Italians, with BATE unlikely to add to the three points they have hitherto collected against Barcelona.
It will be interesting to see how Roma adjust to the challenge posed by the Bundesliga outfit. Leverkusen’s faith in their own philosophy and principles saw them make very few adaptations to their usual game at Camp Nou, meaning they are unlikely to change their approach for a home game against Garcia’s men. Leverkusen deserved more than they got in Catalonia last time out, and will be desperate to ensure they pick up a positive result as well as performance at BayArena this midweek.
About the Author – Greg Lea
Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.