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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Leverkusen cruise Bayern in match that could decide the Bundesliga


In his Friday press conference before the biggest Bayer Leverkusen match in ages, manager Xabi Alonso was told about a quote from Bayern Munich manager Thomas Tuchel earlier in the day. “We’re playing against a lot of ‘neutral’ fans who want Leverkusen to win the title,” Tuchel said. “But we’re playing for our expectations and for the title.”

When asked about being the favorite of the neutral, Alonso simply said, “We have enough motivation from ourselves and our own home fans. That’s enough for us.” Thanks for the support, but we don’t need it. We’ve already got each other.

Turns out, he was right. In the biggest game of the Bundesliga season, Alonso’s team dismantled the 11-time defending league champions, seizing complete control midway through the first half and cruising to a 3-0 win. They are now five points ahead of Bayern with 13 matches remaining.

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With both teams having faced just some injury issues and/or recent changes, both managers had an opportunity to tinker with their lineups. Alonso’s tweaks worked much, much better. Without star forward Victor Boniface, whose eight shot attempts put constant stress on Bayern in the teams’ 2-2 September draw in Munich, he started Amine Adli and Nathan Tella up front along with Florian Wirtz, with Jeremie Frimpong and Jonas Hofmann both beginning the match on the bench. It was Adli’s first start in seven matches and only Tella’s third all season, but with constant speed and energy, the duo rewarded Alonso by recording an assist (from Tella), placing four shots on goal, and putting steady, serious stress on the weakest piece of the Bayern lineup: the back line.

With an injury to left-back Alphonso Davies, Tuchel elected to start newly-signed right back Sacha Boey on the left and went with a defensive back three of Dayot Upamecano (who had missed the last two matches with a minor injury), Eric Dier (who signed in January) and Kim Min-Jae (who had just returned to the team after participating in the Asian Cup). Matthijs de Ligt spent the match on the bench. It looked like these three had never played together because they hadn’t. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who has been battling a knee issue that almost kept him out of the game, misplaced a few passes, too.

With the Bayern errors increasing, Leverkusen struck in the 18th minute. After a brilliant combination between Wirtz and Adli forced a desperate Bayern clearance, Upamecano and Leroy SanΓ© were caught napping; gesturing at each other when Robert Andrich raced past Sane. The Leverkusen midfielder then fired a perfect cross past a scrambling Upamecano to Josip Stanisic, who had materialized unmarked on the right side of the goal. The Bayern loanee, sent to Leverkusen in August, put his new team up 1-0.

Tuchel also started Aleksandar Pavlovic in midfield instead of longtime team leader Joshua Kimmich. Pavlovic was safe in possession, completing 45 of 50 passes, but Bayern lacked ideas in attack. Over the first 50 minutes, they turned 76 touches in the attacking third into just three shot attempts worth 0.1 xG. Leverkusen had 75 such touches but turned them into 10 shots and, after a brilliant Tella pass set Alejandro Grimaldo up to put the ball in the ceiling of the net in the 50th minute, two goals.

Bayern finally began creating more dangerous chances after the second goal, but nothing came from them even after Kimmich came in for the final 30 minutes. Their nine total shot attempts and one shot on goal were both their lowest output of the season, and stars Harry Kane and Jamal Musiala combined for just two shots and four touches in the box. The Leverkusen back line was nearly perfect, and the team’s ball mastery in close quarters allowed them to control the center of the pitch which also prevented Bayern from forcing turnovers in dangerous areas. Finally, with Bayern desperate in the closing seconds, Neuer came up for a Bayern corner, and after a Neuer header attempt triggered a counter-attack, Frimpong, in for the final 25 minutes, raced downfield and put the ball into an empty net from 37 meters out on the final kick of the match.

Now, as they say, comes the hard part. Leverkusen has won the biggest game of the season to date and has done what so many recent challengers were unable to do: take points off of Bayern when they matter. And according to the Opta power ratings, their odds of winning the Bundesliga jumped from 47% at the start of the match to 66% at the end. But their lead remains only five points, and they have to maintain this level even as extended runs in the DFB Pokal (where they have reached the semifinals) and the Europa League (where they have qualified for the round of 16) clutter the schedule.

After the match, goalkeeper and captain Lukas Hradecky called Alonso and his staff over to celebrate with the team in front of the Leverkusen ultras, then climbed into the stands to chant with the ultras as well. This was certainly not a normal postgame situation. But when asked on Friday whether he was concerned about the balance between rising to the moment of the Bayern match but being ready to immediately refocus on everything that followed, Alonso insisted he was not. “No, no, no. It is the challenge of tomorrow, but it is not the final challenge,” he said. “It’s an important game, but three points is not a definitive thing. It’s not hard — we are used to preparing for big games.”

He elaborated in the post-match press conference on Saturday evening. Recalling the bigger matches Leverkusen had played (and either won or drawn) so far this season, he said, “Each of those games helped us to have more experience in the big games. Today we needed that mentality.

“To have this competitive level against Bayern, it means the level of this team is growing. This team is ready to play not-so-nice games and not fall apart. And that’s great.”

The not-so-nice games are just beginning, and as the finish line gets closer, both the pressure and references to the “Neverkusen” of lore — the team that proverbially always falls short, the team that hasn’t won a trophy of any kind in 31 years, the team that came within four matches of the treble in 2001-02 but went 0-for-3 — will grow.

But Leverkusen, now unbeaten for 31 straight matches, have each other and their fans. That might be enough to finish the job and end Bayern’s title streak.



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