Blame it on Arsenal FC - and no doubt Sir Alex Ferguson happily would.
Ever since Arsène Wenger's side emphatically beat Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the second group stage of the UEFA Champions League almost everyone has underestimated the German team. At this rate, Klaus Toppmöller's side could still be on a blind-side run as they mount the winners' rostrum in Glasgow on 15 May to collect the trophy from the UEFA president Lennart Johansson.
Jumped to conclusions
It was ironic that Toppmöller, of all people, should have jumped to conclusions about which team he will be facing in the climax of Europe's premier club competition. But in the circumstances he could be forgiven fantasizing about a denouement involving Real Madrid CF.
Madrid or Barcelona
Whether or not his dream is about to become a reality we shall discover tonight when Madrid, already two goals to the good, look to complete the job against FC Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabéu in the second leg of their semi-final.
Not taken seriously
In truth, Leverkusen, who defeated United on the away goals rule after drawing 3-3 on aggregate, have been underestimated ever since this season's competition began. For some reason, as long as the champions FC Bayern München were still around no one could take the claims of the poor relations of Leverkusen very seriously.
The 4-1 Matchday Ten defeat by Arsenal in February on a night when the English club would have beaten any side in the world appeared to vindicate the critics' views. Even when they won in La Coruna in their final second group stage game, it was generally regarded that they only did so because the Spanish club fielded a weakened side; the fact that they had beaten a full-strength RC Deportivo La Coruña team 3-0 earlier in the competition was conveniently overlooked.
Anyone who saw them dominate Liverpool FC in the quarter-finals in a way that few visiting teams do at Anfield knew just how good they were. Their positive away performance at Old Trafford was what won them the semi-final - deservingly, even if Ferguson did describe them as "lucky" at the BayArena last night. United were definitely below-par in the first leg but even in the second leg when they gave a much better account of themselves they could never quite match Leverkusen's fluency and understanding.
Toppmöller has assembled a side which makes up for what it may lack in individual excellence with superb collective quality. With a squad of no more than 14 or 15 players it was a victory for continuity over rotation. Players like Bernd Schneider and Yildiray Bastürk may suffer by comparison with Juan Sebastián Veron and Roy Keane individually but as a unit Leverkusen's midfield was much the more impressive, even allowing for the fact that Keane was head and shoulders above any player on the field.
Keane an inspiration
It was somehow inevitable that United's inspirational Irishman should be the one to give them the lead, making no mistake despite the angle following Boris Zivkovic's 29th -minute slip. As Ferguson said afterwards: "You just wish there were ten of him." Generally, though, it was a night when the English club's big-name players, such as Veron, Ruud van Nistelrooij and Ryan Giggs, failed to deliver. In fairness to Van Nistelrooij, he got no service to speak of compared with Oliver Neuville, yet one sensed the German was in the mood to score with or without help. In the event, he took a pass from Bastürk before scoring with a perfectly executed chip, which was driven at the same time.
There was a determination about Leverkusen that was lacking in the United side and no-one epitomised it more than the elegant Michael Ballack, who lasted the entire 90 minutes despite his "badly bruised" foot, which suggested his fitness scare was a little bit of a smokescreen. An injury of a much more serious nature to Jens Nowotny, who was carried off with cruciate ligament damage to his knee after just nine minutes, causing a major reshuffle to the defence, means that Leverkusen will be without their most experienced defender for the final.
Sadly, they will also be without the wing skills of the elusive Brazilian Zé Roberto, who must be full of remorse this morning after forfeiting his place in the final for no better reason than because he chose to argue with the referee, Kim Milton Nielsen, who had an excellent game. Nevertheless, it was a minor miracle that he was the only one of nine Leverkusen players one booking away from suspension to suffer.
If Toppmöller's side are to miss out somewhat unluckily on their first 1. Bundesliga title this weekend, victory in their first Champions League final would be more than ample compensation. Whatever the outcome it has been a tremendous achievement by one of Europe's less fashionable clubs. One thing is certain: Madrid - or Barcelona - will underestimate them at their peril.
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