When Bayer 04 Leverkusen qualified for the quarter-finals of this season's UEFA Champions League, many observers felt that the unfashionable German team had gone as far as they were likely to go in Europe's premier club competition. Now, after a wonderfully controlled performance at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, they are odds-on to reach the final itself.
The offensive capabilities of Klaus Toppmöller's side were there for all to see in the second leg of their quarter-final victory over Liverpool FC, thrillingly won 4-3 on aggregate after they lost the first leg 1-0 at Anfield. But against Manchester United FC we saw another dimension to Leverkusen's game, combining rock-solid defence with forward menace.
United, who scored with a fortuitous deflection in the first half and a penalty in the second, had few clear chances throughout despite the withdrawal through injury of Leverkusen's German international central defender Jens Nowotny at half-time. Meanwhile Michael Ballack, who has found his best form at the most opportune time for his club, and Yildiray Bastürk posed a constant threat in attack with their intelligent running.
Finishing the job
What is more, Leverkusen can be proud of the way they came from behind twice away from home, and at the BayArena next Tuesday they have every reason to be confident of finishing the job. United, meanwhile, will draw comfort from the fact that they reached the final three years ago after drawing at home to Juventus FC in the first leg of the semi-final.
Furthermore, United have lost only once on their Champions League travels this season, and while a low-scoring draw would not be enough for Sir Alex Ferguson's team, they can also point to a 4-2 victory by Olympique Lyonnais at the BayArena in the first group stage as evidence that the German league leaders are not impregnable at home.
Happily, no player from either side is suspended for the second leg, but the respective disciplinary records may still have a significant bearing on the outcome. Going into the game, no fewer than 13 of the possible starters will know that a yellow card offence would mean missing the final, nine of those being Leverkusen players including Ballack, Nowotny, Lucio and Zé Roberto.
But no one is likely to feel more vulnerable than United captain Roy Keane and central defender Laurent Blanc. Keane missed out on United's last Champions League final, a 2-1 defeat of FC Bayern München in 1999, after picking up a booking in the semi-finals, while Blanc sat out the 1998 FIFA World Cup final for similar reasons. The commitment of both players will be vital to United's chances of success next week.
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