If Leverkusen have spent most of the campaign so far hiding their bright light under a bushel, it was shining high in the grey skies last weekend as they steamrollered long-time league-leaders Union Berlin. The highlight of Englische Woche, though? Don’t be fooled. If Sunday was the main course this, a 15-minute hop behind enemy lines on a fresh Wednesday night, was the dessert.
That half-hour of second-half heaven against Union, where a goalless first half became a 5-0 virtuoso display, felt like a placebo in the context of the midweek derby at Köln, like a little holiday from reality. It had shown Leverkusen could play, but we knew that already. This showed they have the guts as well as the swagger (neither of which have been on display nearly enough this season). The jubilant reaction of Xabi Alonso – a twitchy, tense presence on the touchline all evening – and his staff at the end showed how much this meant.
Leverkusen’s tough midfielder Robert Andrich, disarmingly honest and increasingly the team’s spokesman while a season that had promised so much fell through the floor, warned that was the case as the embers of Sunday’s performance still glowed. “It’s important,” he had stressed, “that we don’t think it’s all about tra-la-la football.” Beating Union had sprung Die Werkself from the bottom three for the first time in weeks. It was only the first step.
If ever a challenge could have been artificially concocted to give weight to Andrich’s words then this kleine Derby would have been it. Leverkusen were on the rack for much of it, particularly in a first half in which they were unimaginative in attack and uncoordinated without the ball. They trailed from the half-hour, when Benno Schmitz chested down and smashed in a perfect volley from the edge of the box. It was the defender’s first Bundesliga goal for the club, almost four-and-a-half years after joining, his first goal of any sort since scoring for Bayern Munich’s second team nine seasons ago. His teammate Linton Maina held his head in his hands, unable to believe it. Little wonder one pressroom wag was overheard referring to Schmitz as the “Kölsche Cafu”. The goal underlined the superior enterprise and poise of Steffen Baumgart’s side, despite their inferior resources.
This was the moment for Leverkusen to show that the players are equipped for the task of pulling away from the bottom, rather than showcasing their feted coach’s ideas. “It’s not that easy to mentally accept the situation that you’re in and go from there,” the club’s sporting director Simon Rolfes told the Guardian afterwards. “[Alonso] stepped in without time to train the team, more or less. It’s great work from him to be very efficient in the few sessions we had, and from Sunday onwards we have six weeks to use like summer preparation.”
Leverkusen rode their luck, especially during a sequence of play early in the second half when Köln skipper Jonas Hector crashed one off the crossbar from way out and then Lukas Hradecky saved from Sargis Adamyan. If either of those chances had gone in, we might have found out exactly how much stomach the visitors really had. On the back of that, though, Leverkusen began to scrap. Alonso’s substitutions worked, with one of them, Nadiem Amiri, levelling from a direct free-kick with 25 minutes to go. His goading of some of the home fans as he celebrated showed he knew what was at stake.
For even if Leverkusen have the greater riches, Köln have the richer history, and their big derby is Borussia Mönchengladbach. “We have a game against a team from the neighbourhood, for whom it will be a derby,” their head of football Thomas Kessler teased before the game. “Since Leverkusen are not doing well at the moment, it would be huge for them if they win against us.” Thanks to an electrifying counter started and finished by Moussa Diaby – their best player on the night – six minutes after Amiri’s equaliser, they did just that.
This season has been a climb and then some for Köln. First there was the sudden exit of Anthony Modeste, whose goals in his remarkable renaissance-season lifted them back into Europe – before Borussia Dortmund whisked him away as a short-term, big-money locum for Sébastien Haller, leaving only anger and indignation behind. Then there was dealing with Europe itself, always a challenge for a club of these means, but made all the harder by the eruption of violence in Nice on the Europa Conference League group stage’s opening night in September.
The emotional outpouring at the return with Nice last week, a gala night to hit all the right notes which ended in heroic failure, was still being recovered from. Needing a win to advance, Effzeh had trailed 2-0 to ex-Gladbach coach Lucien Favre’s men, clawed back to parity and just missed adding the finishing touch. Yet it still satisfied, for this is a club that deals in hope. Accordingly, Baumgart spoke before Leverkusen about being on the front-foot, despite a raft of injuries. “Our approach is to remain bold,” he said, or as the city’s daily Express put it: “Steffen Baumgart wants to go back to Baumgart football.” They did just that, but were ultimately unable to sustain their efforts, gravity doing its thing.
Maybe there is room to build in the winter window. The Conference League did more for Köln than it does for many. Three sold-out home games (at 50,000 fans a time), plus prize money, has pumped an estimated €10m extra into Kölner coffers, which could make a significant difference to the rest of their season. “The team have more than done their duty,” said managing director Christian Keller, and as the fans’ warm post-match response made clear. It’s just ironic that it could be the challenge of Köln’s atmosphere that belatedly sparks Leverkusen’s flagging season.
It was joy for Bayern tempered by potential disappointment for the world in Munich. The champions’ 6-1 win over Werder Bremen, after the promoted side had contributed so much to the first half of this Bundesliga season, felt like the first real glimpse of the beast since the opening weeks of the season. Jamal Musiala can lay claim to being the best player in the league at the moment and Leon Goretzka, the scorer of the ridiculously stylish third, looks to be back in imperious form. That all paled in comparison with Wednesday morning’s news that Sadio Mané was in danger of missing the World Cup with a calf injury sustained in the game. After L’Equipe initially reported the Senegal forward as definitely out, the country’s president Macky Sall ended the day praying for good news.
With eye-catching wins for Leipzig (against Freiburg) and Eintracht Frankfurt (in a 4-2 win over Hoffenheim), Dortmund slipped out of the top four with defeat at Wolfsburg, the result of “being too sleepy at the start,” according to Niklas Süle. Meanwhile Niko Kovac’s side are now unbeaten in eight, having ridden out the very public row between skipper Max Arnold – playing superbly at present – and the excommunicated Max Kruse.