When Michael Ballack returned to Bayer 04 Leverkusen in summer 2010 after a successful spell with Chelsea FC, the all-action midfielder was expected to be riding off into the sunset of retirement sooner or later.
But while the 35-year-old declared last week that he anticipated this season being his last at Leverkusen, his swansong with the Bundesliga club where he forged his reputation may yet provide more than a footnote in his illustrious career. Chelsea will be as aware as anyone that Ballack still has much to offer after their former team-mate turned adversary inspired Leverkusen to a thrilling 2-1 home win that took the German side into the knockout stages and left the English visitors as blue as their shirts.
We're delighted to be in the next round, though it's always a little lucky when you score in the last minute," Ballack told UEFA.com after seeing Manuel Friedrich head an added-time winner to cap a spirited Group E comeback started by Eren Derdiyok's 73rd-minute equaliser. "I think we kept faith. It was a bitterly contested game. Normally when you go 1-0 down to Chelsea, it's very difficult to win, but we did it."
After Didier Drogba had used muscle and guile to turn Friedrich before firing Chelsea into a 48th-minute lead that would have taken them through, only Petr Čech prevented Ballack single-handedly hauling Leverkusen back into the match. With both him and Čech wearing protective masks, the pair resembled comic-book heroes, and the duo were as dynamic as each other as they went face-to-face twice in the space of an intense second-half minute.
"I was a little unlucky, Petr made two great saves," said the former Germany captain after the Czech goalkeeper first tipped an overhead kick to safety, then bravely blocked a point-blank strike to deny the Leverkusen midfielder a goal in a game brimful of personal significance.
"It certainly wasn't a match like any other, and it wasn't in the first game we played against them either. But in my 100th European game, I'm happy to have come out with a win. It's great that it's come against Chelsea, but I still hope they go through."
While Chelsea's future in the competition will be on the line when they host Valencia CF in their final group fixture on 6 December with victory vital, Leverkusen go to eliminated KRC Genk knowing three points in Belgium will send them into the round of 16 draw as Group E winners.
"We want to be first in the group – that's our goal, so that we play against a group runner-up. That would perhaps be easier," said Ballack, who now wants his colleagues to use the confidence borne of a hat-trick of home victories in Europe to improve their fortunes in the Bundesliga. "I think we simply need to have more faith in ourselves. We have a great team and sometimes we sell ourselves short, it's as simple as that."
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