Bayer 04 Leverkusen overtook FC Shakhtar Donetsk on the last day to proceed from Group A and cap a topsy-turvy campaign which featured a big win and a 5-0 home defeat.
A 1-0 win at Real Sociedad de Fútbol on UEFA Champions League matchday six sealed Bayer 04 Leverkusen's place in the knockout stage at the expense of FC Shakhtar Donetsk. Many had doubted Sami Hyypiä's men after a chastening 5-0 home defeat by Manchester United FC but, in the end, they pulled through in second spot behind the English title holders in Group A.
Story so far
The Bundesliga side were outplayed in the 4-2 loss to Manchester United on matchday one, so the ensuing 2-1 victory, clinched by Jens Hegeler's added-time free-kick, against Real Sociedad was just as vital as the 4-0 triumph over FC Shakhtar Donetsk that followed. A goalless draw in Ukraine then ensured Leverkusen would finish above Shakhtar should the clubs amass the same number of points, but things looked bleak when the German team slipped below the Pitmen into third position after that 5-0 reverse against United. A 1-0 success in Spain, coupled with United beating Shakhtar by the same margin, took Bayer through on the final day.
The big win at home to Shakhtar was pretty important, even if the scoreline did not necessarily reflect what happened on the pitch. Yet the moment that stands out above all others is Hegeler's majestic 92nd-minute free-kick against La Real at the BayArena. "Before the free-kick I had a little discussion with Stefan Kiessling," said the defender. "He told me to cross it because I had not converted the first one, so I was a little unsure what to do, but the position was simply too tempting and I decided to shoot and that turned out to be right."
Key player: Stefan Kiessling
Kiessling is integral to Leverkusen's game plan. Though he cannot force his way into Joachim Löw's Germany squad, his finishing skills make him vital for his club. Not only does the tall striker score goals, he also works hard and serves as a classic target man, heading balls on to team-mates. "We are stronger than some on the outside perceive us to be," said the 29-year-old. "Everyone here is convinced we will win something some time."
Rising star: Son Heung-Min
He may not always make the right decision – dribbling when he is supposed to pass or shooting when someone else is better placed – but South Korea midfielder Son has had an immediate impact since joining from Hamburger SV last summer. His pace and bravery, not to mention his polite ways, have made him a crowd favourite and Leverkusen are a more dangerous, counterattacking side when the 21-year-old is in the team.
While he has yet to find the net in the UEFA Champions League, this seems only a matter of time given he has registered seven goals in 13 Bundesliga outings in 2013/14. "From my point of view, he is a player with great quality," said Hyypiä. "And he is ready to learn. You can see how much he wants to improve."
Leverkusen's counterattacking approach is illustrated by the fact they enjoyed, on average, 40% possession over the course of the group stage. They also completed 1,861 passes, the third-lowest total.
"We have had good results in the league, cup and now away from home in the Champions League since the defeat by Manchester United – that's an indication of us growing as a team. We are only just becoming aware of what we can achieve and what our potential is."
Kiessling is sure there is more to come from his team.
Next challenge: Paris Saint-Germain
(Away: 19 February, home: 11 March)
Leverkusen stated their wish to be drawn against Paris before the ceremony took place. This, however, did not mean the Werkself are taking Laurent Blanc's men lightly; more that they wanted a club they have never played before. While some German pundits have focused solely on Zlatan Ibrahimović, Leverkusen will know there is a lot more to worry about than just the talismanic Sweden forward.