Bayer Leverkusen conceded the title to Dortmund but secured their spot in next season’s Champions League group stage – despite losing the Rhine derby to Cologne, who now move four points clear of the drop zone.
With Wolfsburg beating Werder Bremen the evening before this Saturday afternoon game, Cologne were once again in the thick of the relegation battle. A disastrous loss of form and the sudden departure of coach Frank Schaefer in the week meant that Leverkusen were the clear favourites for this tie. Dortmund were playing simultaneously, with both they and Leverkusen knowing that a loss for Dortmund and a win for Leverkusen would see the gap at the top reduced to two points. But for Jupp Heynckes’s side, the real goal was simply to win irrespective of how Dortmund got on, as three points here would guarantee the club’s place in the Champions League group stages for next season (even if Heynckes is Bayern Munich-bound).
Eintracht Frankfurt were also playing at the same time as this match, and if they managed to beat Mainz coupled with a Leverkusen victory, Cologne would slip to 16th place, with two matches of the season to play. Under the guidance of sporting director Volker Finke, the hosts, unlike their guests, had injury worries – widemen Sławomir Peszko and Christian Clemens were both ruled out. After losing 6-2, 5-1, 4-1 and 3-1 in four of their last five games (not to mention 3-2 against Leverkusen back in December), Finke came into this game with a tactical conundrum – should he play Thomas Schaaf-esque ‘you score four, we’ll score five’ football, or José Mourinho-style bus parking stuff?
Well, it was too early to answer that question in the opening exchanges, but the home side began the game with some possession in harmless areas of the pitch – their opponents happy to let them have the ball. When they did come into the Leverkusen half, the blue-shirted players didn’t have to do too much work to clear their lines, Cologne’s haste causing them to lose the ball and try things too hurriedly. When they did get a chance to use the ball, the away side were calm and clever, but a lack of urgency ensured that any of their attempted through-balls went to waste. Gradually, the home side began to look sharper, Mato Jajalo cutting in from the left (using a dummy overlap by Christian Eichner), but prevented from shooting by a risky Lars Bender tackle. The relentless home side pressing soon rendered Leverkusen’s breaks destined to fail, and forced their passes at the back into hit n’ hope punts upfield; easy for the deep-lying Cologne defenders to shield back to Michael Rensing.
Yet despite the occasionally incisive on and off-ball runs of Jajalo, René Adler had nothing to do inside the opening ten minutes. The home side lacked a midfield magician and the ability to make consistent, speedy first-time passes with one another in the opposition half. Leverkusen stayed true to their defensive-minded tactics during the half’s first-third: letting the home side come out and play and rarely pressing beyond halfway, but chasing the man on the ball in their own half with more vigour and breaking moves down that way. When they did have a go at attacking themselves, their sole idea seemed to involve speculative long punts forward, which Michael Ballack would mop up, before releasing Sidney Sam to hit the byline and pull the ball back for an onrushing attacker.
But when Arturo Vidal flew upfield to assist Sam on one such attack, Lukas Podolski exploited the space he had abandoned. A quick break from the back saw the German international found on his own on the left flank, and a diagonal cross which neither centre-back could gamble taking a touch on was just inches away from being steered in by Milivoje Novakovič. The home side began to target the Chilean’s side with more regularity as the game wore on, growing especially fond of breaking moves down on their right-hand side, before switching play for Eichner and Jajalo to run in tandem at Vidal.
Nevertheless, Heynckes’s side had now grown more urgent in their attacks, aided by Renato Augusto’s increased mobility and the occasional space offered in the centre of the pitch by Finke’s side who always had the two centre-backs as deep as was necessarily possible. It was all about starting moves down the flanks for Cologne, with Adil Chihi growing into the game and playing with cleverness (never looking to beat his man, more focused on bringing the ball beyond halfway before looking to play the wisest pass). But it was Ballack who was having the most influence on the game, taking total advantage of the home side’s insistence on pressing high whilst still keeping the centre-backs deep. This allowed the former Chelsea man to bob in acres of centre-circle space, and have the luxury of picking out a target for one of his scooped through-balls. Gonzalo Castro should have buried one in the 23rd minute when he was released by Ballack to go one on one with Rensing. Alas, the left-sided midfielder tried to be too fancy with the finish, setting himself up for a spectacular half-volley which he wasted.
Ballack’s former international team-mate Podolski, who once slapped the veteran midfielder mid-match during a World Cup qualifier in Cardiff, was also having his moments, relishing the freedom his nominal placing behind the striker gave him, and showing up all over the final-third to draw fouls. His side’s defence were now seemingly resigned to letting Ballack pull the strings, and therefore looked to get narrow inside Rensing’s box as early as possible. Aided by the like-minded dropping defensive midfielders, they allowed the away side’s man on the wing to pick out a cross or pass into the middle, favouring the chance to clear the ball there rather than stopping the pass from ever being made.
But as the half-hour mark came and went, both sides were finding it easy to cut the other’s primary tactic out. Ballack, still getting the ball in midfield space (also being created by Bender’s energy-laden incessant darts here, there and everywhere), was never able to play the through-balls he wanted to play; namely, ones through the D. The home side, meanwhile, who immediately shuttled back in two extremely narrow banks of four when out of possession, found that even though it was easy to break Leverkusen down and release Podolski on the left (dragging Schwaab across, and making it one-on-one between Sami Hyypiä and Novakovič for the subsequent ball in), the seen-it-all Finn was more often than not in the right place to clear the cross or square. Perhaps news had filtered through that Frankfurt were losing and Dortmund winning – potential results that would ensure a draw from this game wouldn’t be the worst outcome in the world for either side (the title was always a long shot for Leverkusen anyway).
Nevertheless, with Michal Kadlec keeping one eye on helping Hyypiä during Cologne’s breaks, there was space for Mišo Brečko to chance his arm in coming forward during the final 15 minutes of the first half. But despite some silky touches and one or two decent balls into the box, the Slovenian isn’t a beat-your-man-and-reach-the-byline sort of full-back, so needed several passing options on his forays forward. This pulled the Cologne midfield across, allowing Vidal and Sam to surge forward on the break. But they failed to assist one of various targets in the box to score the game’s opening goal, and the half finished 0-0.
The second half began in a rather feeble fashion. Tame attempts at going forward were broken down with ease or occasional moments of defensive cleverness; two examples of the latter coming from Pedro Geromel (on a yellow card after a first half skirmish with Stefan Kießling), and Bender. A few moments after Novakovič had missed a glorious chance to test Adler (after being gifted the ball by the Leverkusen centre-backs, he ran with it through the D, showing too much determination to get close to the goal, too little pace and too heavy a touch, thus inviting a back-tracking tackle), Kießling nearly scored after the cleverest move of the match. With both sides setting up just as they had done during the first half, Renato Augusto tried something new when in possession on the wing. Jogging sideways infield from the right, he kept a scared but tight defence on their toes, and bobbing closer to the D, waited for the right moment to pick out a pass. Then he struck – a ball inside Geromel and Brečko finding his colleague on the shoulder of the Slovenian defender, only for Kießling to rattle the woodwork with a shot.
In the 55th minute, the home side showed that anything their guests could do, they could do better. A triangle between Petit and Chihi on the right allowed the latter to play a brilliant square between the narrowest goalkeeper-centre-back corridor imaginable. Just like a similar Podolski ball into the box during the first half, a certain lively Slovenian striker looking to get on the end of the pass was mere inches away from achieving just that. But thereafter, it was Leverkusen doing most of the running. Perhaps the fact that Frankfurt were now 3-0 down away at Mainz was not a coincidence – there was no need for the hosts to risk defeat. Thus, we were back to seeing Ballack pulling the strings – in the final-third with the ball at his feet and no need to break out of a walk, the 34-year-old scooped a through-ball over Eichner in the 59th minute for Vidal to run onto. The run was superbly timed, but the Chilean could only win a corner.
The hosts couldn’t escape their own box, let alone the half, and it was that man Ballack who so nearly opened the scoring in the 63rd minute. Kadlec dinked in a delightful back-post cross, which Kießling cleverly headed back across goal. There was Ballack, rushing to push it in, but Rensing, a fellow former Bayern Munich player, was just as alert, and managed to keep his sheet clean for the time being. Moments later, Podolski burst into life, running at the away side’s defence, and forcing Bender into a lunge and yellow card. The resultant free-kick was shot at Adler by Petit.
Yet despite the former Portugal international’s wastefulness, Cologne suddenly had the proverbial bit between their teeth. When Brečko brought the ball upfield on a diagonal jog, he played a one-two with Petit, receiving the ball again via a back-heel which took the Leverkusen centre-midfield – seemingly having a moment of relaxation – out of the game. The Slovenian full-back played through his international team-mate Novakovič, who was lurking on Schwaab’s shoulder. With the ball at his feet, it was simply a case of beating the onrushing slide of Adler for Novakovič, with Vidal too near the chalk to stop him. The 31-year-old achieved his goal, namely, scoring a goal, handing the home side a 1-0 lead with 23 minutes left on the clock.
Heynckes immediately rang the changes, replacing his midfield widemen (Sam and Castro) with the Swiss duo of Erin Derdiyok and Tranquillo Barnetta. The 4-2-3-1 system was retained, with Barnetta going out on the right, and Derdiyok on the left. The pair nearly helped level the scores in the 73rd minute, when the former switched play to the latter, who found himself in acres of space. Via Kadlec, the ball found its way to Augusto, 30 yards from goal just off the D. He fired in a right-footed daisy-cutter, which rattled off Rensing’s left-hand post, before bouncing across goal away from Kießling’s reach.
Leverkusen’s Czech left-back, Kadlec, was now rampant, causing Finke to replace the tiring Chihi with Sebastian Freis in the 77th minute. This gave the former Freiburg tactician more energy on the right flank, as well as a winger who understands what it means to defend, having played for his side at full-back on several occasions. Heynckes had already used all the substitutes available to him at this point, replacing the booked Bender with Simon Rolfes. If this was to ensure his side finished the game with 11 men on the pitch, the likes of Ballack and Vidal seemed eager to ruin that plan. The experienced duo dived into daft tackle after daft tackle, particularly on Podolski, and their double effort on the fiery forward conceded a needless free-kick on the left flank just outside the box in the 81st minute. Petit wellied it point-blank at Adler, whose parry fell at the feet of Novakovič. The striker bravely gobbled up his 16th goal of a highly productive season, sealing an invaluable win for his relegation-threatened side in the process.