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UEFA Champions League 2016-17: Bayer Leverkusen's Young Guns Lead Champions League Charge


Bayer Leverkusen logoIn this year’s UEFA Champions League, the German DFB has placed three teams into the final sixteen. Two of these group stage-survivors are well-known: FC Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have both been regulars in the knockout stage over the past five years. Both have won the competition before, and the two met in the Final in 2013.

The third German participant in this year’s round of sixteen is a little less well-heralded. Bayer 04 Leverkusen have never won the Champions League, and in fact have never won the championship of the 1. Bundesliga. They did make a CL Final in 2002, but the club hasn’t really threatened to get as far as the Final since then.

That could change this year, though, as Der Werkself put together an undefeated record in group stage play to enter the round of sixteen. Leverkusen are long-shot contenders to continue to advance, but their smothering defending and their mix of opportunistic playmakers could make them dangerous. And they have a trio of young starlets who have been instrumental to their success.  

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To a greater degree than most big and semi-big clubs, Bayer Leverkusen have put their fortunes in the hands of younger players over the past few years. Some have come up through the team’s youth ranks, while others have been bought up from various other teams, but at a stage when they’re still unproven and raw. While there are others who would also be worth a look, the following three are all incredibly talented, all 22 years old or younger, and all played a key role in the impressive Champions League group stage performance this year.

Julian Brandt

A young prodigy who has been in the publicJulian Brandt, the talented youngster of Bayer Leverkusen eye for a while, it’s hard to believe that Brandt just turned 20 this past summer. He made his Bundesliga and Champions League debuts at just 17 years old, and seems likely to play a key role with both Leverkusen and the German national team over the next generation. 

Brandt can play on the wing or down the center aisle. A precise passer, he always seems to find a teammate if the opposing defenders try to clamp down on him. But if opponents sit back and give him space, he can burn them with his own scoring touch as well. And having played in countless big Bundesliga and Champions League clashes, as well as winning a silver medal at the Olympics, he’s not rattled by big-game pressure.

Hakan Çalhanoglu

The elder statesman of the crew (he’s a ripe 22 years old), Hakan is best known as a set-piece specialist. But his touch and shooting prowess from open play are also impressive. In the first Champions League match of the campaign Çalhanoglu set up B04’s first goal with a good pass, then scored one of his own on a long-range blast. If it weren’t for a brief lapse in defensive sanity, Leverkusen would have won this match and probably cruised to knockout stage qualification even earlier.

Like Julian Brandt, Hakan has been a well-known quantity for a long-time, despite being a younger player. He came over from Hamburger SV in a controversial move two years ago. In two and a half years at Leverkusen Çalhanoglu has eight goals in continental play in 27 appearances. He certainly figures to be a key part of the Bayer attack for the foreseeable future. 

Benjamin Henrichs

Julian Brandt, the talented youngster of Bayer LeverkusenLess well-known than the other two, but he has also played a big role in Leverkusen’s squad this year. Henrichs is just 19, but has established himself in the B04 starting line-up with a series of solid performances. Although he’s impossibly thin and still basically looks like a kid, he has shown excellent foot quickness and a nose for intercepting passes. His interceptions have turned defense to offense quickly on several occasions.

In the big Champions League clash with Spurs on November 2, Henrichs turned in a man-of-the-match performance with his best game to date. Making five interceptions and successfully completing eight tackles, the young fullback completely shut down the right flank and stymied Tottenham’s attack. Not bad for a guy who’s still eligible for next year’s U20 World Cup. 

Leverkusen were drawn into the classic “Group of Critical Injury” this year: it wasn’t quite a Group of Death, because none of the four teams were a truly world elite side, but all four were at least very good. AS Monaco, Tottenham Hotspur and CSKA Moscow joined Leverkusen in a group in which each team had some star players and could be hoping for a run to the quarterfinals (though none of the four was a likely contender to actually win the tournament). In that kind of environment anything can happen.

Hakan Calhanoglu of Bayer Leverkusen and Turkey national teamB04’s inexperience was evident early in the group stage. The difficulty of fighting through a tough Bundesliga schedule at the same time the Champions League was underway also played a part. The German club was held to a draw in all of its first three group stage matches. In the opener vs. CSKA Moscow, the team took an early 2:0 lead. As mentioned above, Hakan Çalhanoglu played a key role, but the German side threw the lead away and settled for a single point. And after three rounds of play, they were on the outside looking in, as both Monaco and Spurs sat above them in the group stage standings.

Starting in early November though, Leverkusen really turned it around. In the three most recent Champions League matches Leverkusen won two and drew one, outscoring their opponents by a collective 5:2 line. In total, they rattled off an undefeated six-match run in CL play, allowing only four goals along the way (and none in two matches vs. Tottenham).

The reward for this performance: a round of 16 tie with Atletico Madrid. This could seem like a mismatch at first, as Atleti are among the world’s best. The Spanish side have skill on both flanks and they apply relentless pressure, as well as having the scoring threat of Griezmann, obviously. But Leverkusen are known for pressuring the ball a bit themselves. In fact, these two teams are similar: both have excellent fullbacks. Both smother opposing teams and don’t give up many goals. Both have quick strike attacks that don’t always light up the scoreboard, but that are always at least a threat. And these two teams played each other at the same stage, with Leverkusen according themselves fairly well. B04 fought to a scrapping 1:1 draw over two legs, with Atletico Madrid barely earning passage through the penalty shoot-out. 

Leverkusen will surely feel like they have a Bayer 04 coach Roger Schmidtchance at the upset. And while Chicharito is the team’s biggest star, the three young talents highlighted above will certainly play a key role. If Bayer can fight their way past Atletico, they have to be considered a threat to anyone. They press aggressively, they limit opponents’ chances to make long dribbling runs, and they are always a danger from set pieces. As we saw these past three months, when you rely on youth, you’re going to see some lapses and some mistakes. When everything gets turned in the right direction and the kids go on a good run, though, anything is possible.

Thanks for reading.
 
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2017-01-09


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