Thursday, May 23, 2024

Bayer Leverkusen 2-2 Roma (4-2 agg.): Talking points as Die Werkself produce another late comeback and reach Europa League final

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Bayer Leverkusen managed to keep their unbeaten run going in a dramatic way as they returned from two goals down at home against AS Roma and booked a place in the Europa League final, thanks to their 2-0 victory in Rome in the first leg of the semifinals.

Leandro Paredes scored twice from the spot (43′, 66′) to nullify Leverkusen’s first-lg lead, but an own-goal from Gianluca Mancini (82′) and a very late strike from Josip Stanisic (90+7′) rescued Xabi Alonso’s side from losing a game for the first time in 2023/24.

The teams

Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso perhaps surprisingly decided to rotate his side to an extent, apparently confident of his team not having too many difficulties in keeping their advantage from the first leg. Florian Wirtz and Robert Andrich, the two goalscorers from Rome, remained on the bench, as did Josip Stanisic.

Matej Kovar was in goal, with the usual trio of Edmond Tapsoba, Jonathan Tah and Piero Hincapie as the last line of defence. Exequiel Palacios replaced Andrich in the middle of the park next to Granit Xhaka, and Jeremie Frimpong dropped into the wing-back role on the right instead of Stanisic, Alejandro Grimaldo was on the left, while Jonas Hofmann came into the lineup in Frimpong’s more advanced role. Adam Hlozek, instead of Wirtz, also supported Amine Adli upfront.

As for Roma, Daniele De Rossi dropped the woeful duo of Chris Smalling and Rick Karsdorp from the first leg, with Leonardo Spinazzola moving to the right defensive flank, Angelino playing on the left, Evan Ndicka coming in the place of Smalling, and Gianluca Mancini completing the back four ahead of goalkeeper Mile Svilar. The rest of the lineup was unchanged from the contest in Rome, with the trio of Leandro Paredes, Bryan Cristante and Lorenzo Pellegrini in midfield, while Stefan El Shaarawy and Sardar Azmoun, instead of Paulo Dybala, flanking Romelu Lukaku upfront.

The game

The contest started in a lively manner. Roma threatened first through Lukaku after less than four minutes, but Kovar reacted well to thwart the Roma striker.

However, Leverkusen soon established control over the proceedings and started causing the visitors problems at the other end. Palacios and Pellegrini tested Svilar from range, but the Roma goalkeeper proved his quality again.

There was a bit of controversy in the 19th minute, when Spinazzola went down injured but Frimpong refused to stop the play. He rushed forward instead, and when his opponents caught up with him, a scuffle broke out with Roma players understandably angry. It was a really unsportsmanlike move from Frimpong, with even Alonso asking him to stop as he took the ball forward. Mancini, Pellegrini and Tapsoba picked up yellow cards before the situation was resolved and the game continued.

As time went on, Leverkusen increased the pressure and the visitors looked more nervous by the minute. Mancini was forced into a last-gasp block to deny Hlozek in the 23rd minute, and Paredes soon found his name in the book of referee Danny Makkelie as well. Hlozek, Frimpong and Adli threatened Svilar on several occasions in the period that followed, and the closest Alonso’s team came to scoring was when Palacios hit the post from range.

But then everything changed in a split-second. Minute 41 was on the clock when the ball finally went into the Leverkusen box towards Lukaku. Tah was caught on his heels and then pulled Lukaku from behind, prompting the referee to blow the whistle and point to the spot. Paredes converted the penalty, halving Roma’s deficit from the first leg completely against the run of play.

Leverkusen’s initiative appeared fully stifled after that, and in the last minute of the first half, Roma came close to setting the aggregate score level through Azmoun, but Tapsoba’s timely reaction prevented it.

After the break, the home side tried to regain their dominance but the Serie A side now had a lot to play for, and Cristante had the first chance of the second half, followed by one for Azmoun and El Shaarawy each. Leverkusen responded through the pace of Frimpong just before the hour mark, but Svilar eventually thwarted Hofmann. Following a mistake by Pellegrini, Alonso’s team had another chance but Svilar saved from Hlozek.

And as it happened in the first half, so it was again. Just when Leverkusen looked to be on the right path, a moment of brain fog happened in their own box and they were punished. A corner was swung in and Hlozek inexplicably handled the ball. Makkelie didn’t react at first, though there were strong calls from the Roma attackers, but he was later sent to the screen and reversed his decision, pointing to the spot. Paredes was calm again and leveled the aggregate score, to the delight of the away fans.

With the tie now perfectly balanced, Leverkusen turned up the volume, clearly keen to avoid their first defeat of the season, or at least secure progress without the need for extra time. Roma defended very well for a while, though, allowing the hosts only one chance which Adli wasted. And then came minute 82 and everything changed again, as Svilar made his first and only mistake of the game following a Leverkusen corner, and the ball hit the unlucky Mancini in the face on the far post and went into the net.

Frimpong and Adli had another chance each soon after, but Svilar had restored his focus.

Roma obviously needed a quick goal, but apart from consecutive corners in stoppage time, they did very little to trouble Kovar. Also, there were always danger signs at the other end, and after Leverkusen substitute Patrik Schick’s failed lob attempt, Josip Stanisic, who had also come off the bench, broke in from the right flank, cut inside the box and smashed past Svilar into the far corner of the net, saving his team from losing the game and settling the tie in one stroke.

Better but insufficient from Roma

Roma certainly played a lot better at the BayArena than they did in Rome the week before, and though few believed it possible after the first leg, they practically came back from the dead and held an active result for a while. De Rossi’s decision to leave Smalling and Karsdorp out really made a difference, with Ndicka and Angelino both playing very well at the back. Cristante, who looked utterly run down by the opposition in Rome, put in a notably better performance in Germany, winning duels all over the pitch and even getting into chances upfront.

But having done the hard part – scoring twice, one moment of confusion was all it took to undo everything for De Rossi’s men. Smalling did come on instead of Angelino, and just one minute later, he failed to get Schick away from Svilar during a corner and his goalkeeper bumped into him, making the mistake which led to Mancini’s own-goal. Following his woeful performance in the first leg, it’s becoming painfully clear that the 34-year-old centre-back simply isn’t a player of sufficient quality for this level anymore.

The incredible Leverkusen

There really doesn’t seem to be a way to beat Bayer Leverkusen this season. Going unbeaten still, with 49 matches played in all competitions, they’ve now set a new European record. Be it an excellent team performance which breaks the opposition into pieces, or a last-gasp charge which brings a last-minute equalizer, this team firmly refuses to lose, and it would appear that Alonso has brought some of the incredible European aura of Real Madrid with him to Leverkusen.

It’s no wonder that the likes of Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Barcelona all wanted the 42-year-old Spaniard to take charge of their respective teams this summer, but he decided to turn all of them down in favour of another season at the BayArena. Having already won the Bundesliga title, he surely sees it as a challenge to try and ward off Bayern again in 2024/25, and prove that his ongoing story here is no fluke.

Into the final

All in all, Roma can leave the competition with their heads held high, having shown real resilience against the most sensational team in Europe. They were beaten by a better side over two legs, and there’s no shame in that. Like Alonso, De Rossi has recommitted his future to the club and the Giallorossi could be in for a very interesting long-term ride under their former midfielder.

As for Leverkusen, they’re likely to risk their unbeaten record over the last two Bundesliga games, which they play away to Bochum and at home against Augsburg. Alonso will surely make significant changes to the team, seeking to preserve the energy of his key men for the upcoming two finals as Leverkusen aim for the treble. On May 22nd, they’ll face Atalanta in the Europa League final, and the team that knocked out Liverpool and Olympique Marseille to play in its first-ever European final will surely prove a worthy adversary. Just three days later, Leverkusen will be strong favourites to overcome Kaiserslautern in the DFB-Pokal final.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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