Having won the first leg of their encounter in the Europa League knockout stage play-offs at the BayArena by 2-3, AS Monaco welcomed Bayer Leverkusen for the rematch at the Stade Louis II on Thursday as big favourites to go through. However, the visitors raised their game to a new level and deservedly won not only the game, by the whole tie.
The 90 minutes ended in a 2-3 victory for the German club, with Florian Wirtz scoring first for Leverkusen in the 13th minute, Wissam Ben Yedder equalizing from the spot six minutes later, Exequiel Palacios restoring Leverkusen’s lead another two minutes later, Amine Adli extending it in the 58th, and Breel Embolo setting the final score in the 84th.
With no goals in the extra 30 minutes, the contest went into a penalty shootout, and the shot of Monaco midfielder Eliot Matazo which hit the crossbar proved decisive for Leverkusen to go through as all five of their takers scored.
Monaco not only won the first leg in Germany; they dominated the contest thoroughly, and given that they had won five matches on the trot made it very reasonable to expect them to go through without too much difficulty. The poor recent form of Leverkusen and their mid-table position in the Bundesliga only added to that feeling.
Monaco were arranged in their usual 4-4-2 setup, with young Salim Ben Seghir playing closest to striker Ben Yedder upfront, while Aleksandr Golovin and Krepin Diatta flanked Youssouf Fofana and Mohamed Camara in midfied. At the back, Malang Sarr and Axel Disasi formed the centre-back partnership, with Caio Henrique on the left and Chrislain Matsima on the right. Bayern Munich loanee Alexander Nubel was in goal.
Meanwhile, Xabi Alonso deployed his men in a 4-3-3, with Lukas Hradecky in goal, Jeremie Frimpong and Piero Hincapie flanking Jonathan Tah and Edmond Tapsoba in the back line, Robert Andrich anchoring the midfield, Mitchel Bakker and Palacios playing between the boxes, and Wirtz and Adli tasked with supporting striker Adam Hlozek upfront.
Alonso’s men truly rose to the occasion. They obviously went to Monaco believing they could win, and attacked from the start, never letting the home side breathe properly. For the whole of 120 minutes, Leverkusen enjoyed 51% of the ball and took a total of 17 shots, (Monaco had 12), and given that Monaco largely dominated the extra time, the difference in favour of the visitors was far greater for the initial 90.
Philippe Clement’s team obviously didn’t expect Leverkusen to put in such a performance, and they paid the price as their confidence turned to complacency.
The Frimpong role
A glance at the lineup Alonso sent out should have warned Clement that though appearing as a 4-3-3, it had the flexibility to change to several different setups if needed. Most obviously, Hincapie is primarily a centre-back, not a left-back, and Bakker is a left-back, not a midfielder. This enabled Leverkusen to shift to a 3-5-2 seamlessly, and with Frimpong thus free to push forward knowing his back was covered, his pace caused all sorts of problems for Monaco throughout the match.
Henrique was the man whose job was made extremely difficult in this way, but he certainly didn’t cover himself in glory in the buildup to the first goal when Adli released Frimpong on the right wing. The 22-year-old easily slipped the ball past the Monaco left-back to the edge of six yards, where Wirtz ended the consequent scramble with a simple tap-in. To be fair, Disasi or Nubel would’ve probably managed to clear the box had they not gotten in each other’s way.
Golovin, playing as a left-sided midfielder, probably should’ve taken his defensive responsibilities more seriously and helped Henrique out, but the Brazilian was left to deal with Frimpong’s pace and trickery on his own far too often.
Questionable defending all-round
Ben Yedder’s equalizer from the penalty spot came after Tapsoba, who played rather poorly in both games against Monaco, clipped Ben Seghir on the foot inside the box. Though several Leverkusen players protested fiercely, there could be no doubt about referee Alejandro Hernandez getting the decision right and it took only a few seconds for the VAR to confirm it. Ben Seghir received the ball and was allowed to turn goalwards far too easily, and Tapsoba’s challenge was very late.
Only two minutes later, Leverkusen had a corner and it was beyond belief to see Hlozek receive the ball at the far post in so much space. Realizing their mistake too late, the Monaco defence charged at the Slovakian striker who simply laid it off for the incoming Palacios, who turned past Golovin and slammed home from the edge of the box. Sarr was as much to blame as Golovin, completely misjudging the flight of the ball before it fell at Hlozek’s feet.
Monaco had just defended a Leverkusen attack well and Ben Seghir was about to take the ball up the pitch, when he carelessly lost it still inside his own half. The visitors regrouped offensively, and eventually Wirtz whipped a fine cross for in incoming Adli, completely unchallenged in the air, and the Leverkusen midfielder produced a superb lobbing header past Nubel for his team’s third goal.
And speaking of unchallenged headers, Embolo also scored his goal from such a situation, having been targeted by a nicely weighed cross from the right flank by Diatta.
It’s obviously too late for Monaco, but if Leverkusen want to move any further than the next round, where they face Hungarian side Ferencvaros, they will have to defend better than this.
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