Date:Tuesday February 13 2007
Who are Bayer Leverkusen?
Well for some of you out there this may seem like a straight forward question with a simple answer. Leverkusen are the team that made Michael Ballack into the, ermů`superstar`, that he is today. They are also renowned for making a great impression on the Champions League around the time of the new Millenium.
However, things are very different around the Rhine these days for Leverkusen.
They are something of a fallen giant looking to re-establish themselves back amongst Germany`s elite and, indeed, the elite of Europe too.
Their most recent result, a 2-2 draw at the weekend against Eintracht Frankfurt, left them seventh in the league and epitomises their fall from the top.
The six seasons from 1997 through to 2002, were incredibly successful for Leverkusen and established their name amongst the cream of the crop, even though they failed to win a trophy. However, the 2002 season has since been labelled the treble horror as Leverkusen contrived to surrender a five point lead at the top of the Bundesliga with just a couple of games remaining. Additionally they were beaten 4-2 in the German Cup final by Schalke 04 and then completed the embarrassment when swept aside by a Zinidine Zidane inspired Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final.
Despite such humiliation in the 2002 season, this had undoubtedly been the clubs most successful era. Not only were they regularly challenging for, and throwing away, the Bundesliga title they could also boast a vast array of footballing talent amongst their ranks. Names such as the afore mentioned Michael Ballack were complimented by the exceptional skills of many Brazilians to grace the German game, names such as Ze Roberto, Lucio and Emerson, who have since gone on to forge prosperous careers for themselves.
However, since the 2002 season things have gradually declined for the often referred to 'plastic side`. First of all there was a mass exodus of players when Ballack, Ze Roberto and Lucio, the spine of the old team, transferred to Bayern Munich. Results were poor and a number of managers came and went as the hierarchy tried to re-instate a successful formula.
Their last trophy was way back in 1993, the German Cup but they have won the UEFA Cup once before, in 1988 when they beat Espanyol over two legs and eventually on penalties. These are the only two major trophies in the clubs 103 year history after their formulation in 1904.
So that is a little about their history but more importantly what can we expect from their current crop of players and style of play?
Well Mark Hughes has gone on record saying that he has done his homework on Leverkusen and he will have needed to.
They still boast some exciting and solid players, with a subtle blend of experience and youthful ebullience. Players such as Carsten Ramelow, a mainstay of the Leverkusen side over the past twelve years, Bernd Schneider, Paul Frier and Hans Jorg Butt provide the side with ample experience. They are complemented by exciting youth prospects such as Gonzalo Castro, Stefan Kiessling and Tranquillo Barnetta. Other names such as Juan (who coincidentally made it into the all-time greatest Leverkusen eleven as voted for by the fans), Roque Junior, familiar to Leeds United fans I`m sure, and Andrei Voronin give the team an impressive edge.
So how does coach, Michael Skibbe incorporate all these players and what formation can Rovers expect to face at the Bay Arena on Wednesday night?
Well unlike Hughes, Skibbe has had a tendency to alter his formations this season often manipulated depending on where they are playing. In 21 league games Skibbe has started 11 of them with a lone striker. This would normally be a tactic associated with away fixtures, however, in six of the clubs ten home games he has preferred the lone striker generally with an attacking midfielder or two supporting behind. It is often rotated between Voronin, the clubs top scorer with seven goals in all competitions and the tall Kiessling, who has bagged four strikes.
In recent fixtures Skibbe has been a lot more aggressive, a tactic that appears to be paying off. In their last eight games home and away they have managed four wins and two draws, which only gains its impact when you understand they had only won four games in their previous thirteen.
In these eight games he has played either a lone frontman with three advanced midfielders or two up with two attacking players behind. The attacking players to watch out for are Sergei Barbarez, an experienced Bosnia and Herzegovina international who only signed for the club on the Rhine last summer. He is the second top goalscorer having found the net on six occasions. Tranquillo Barnetta, a Swiss international despite his tender age. He is predominantly a wide man with plenty of pace and technique and has caught the eye of a number of Premiership teams this season. Finally there is experienced German wide man Paul Frier. He has recently signed a new contract at the club, a timely boost for Skibbe.
Incidentally another dangerman to watch out for is goalkeeper, Hans Jorg Butt. He takes some the club`s penalties and quite a few free-kicks as well. However, it can leave him exposed sometimes, click here to see.
This aggressive formation has been working more often than not because of the holding roles of Ramelow and Schneider. Bernd Scheider does have a tendency to linger forward though; after all he is naturally a right winger.
At the back they are led by Juan and youngster Castro, who looks to have a bright future in the game. They generally play four at the back but have been known to operate with three centre-backs.
I believe that Skibbe will be looking for goals but remain tight in the opening leg. For that reason he will play a single striker up-front and I imagine it will be Voronin, who is far more experienced than Kiessling. He will operate three advanced midfielders with Ramelow and perhaps Rolfes protecting the defence. Their will be no place in the side for Schneider who is struggling to be fit. Also missing is Juan from the heart of their defence. This will be a huge blow for the Germans.
Leverkusen will be looking for only their third win in Europe this season. So far they have played six, won two, drawn two and, yes you guessed it, lost two. One of those defeats was at home against Tottenham and they are far from a team to be feared on their own turf.
If Rovers can poach an early goal and unsettle Leverkusen in the family orientated Bay Arena, they will have every chance of taking something from the game.
Date:Tuesday February 13 2007
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