"We played with a real edge," beamed sporting director Rudi Völler after Bayer 04 Leverkusen marked his 54th birthday with a 2-1 win on coach Sascha Lewandowski's solo debut.
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Some 330 days since he stepped back from his position as joint coach of Bayer 04 Leverkusen to return to the youth ranks, Sascha Lewandowski led the faltering giants to a 2-1 Bundesliga win against Hertha BSC Berlin on Sunday.
The relief was palpable as a switch away from the 4-3-3 formation preferred by Lewandowski's predecessor – and former co-coach – Sami Hyypiä brought immediate change. Stefan Kiessling put the caretaker boss's side in front with the fastest Bundesliga goal of this season after 40 seconds, and 17-year-old winger Julian Brandt made it 2-0 after 24 minutes. Leverkusen laboured a bit after Sandro Wagner's header brought Hertha back into contention, but sporting director Völler accentuated the positives.
"Hertha were lucky to be only 2-0 down," said Völler, whose 54th birthday celebrations coincided with Sunday's game. "Right from the kick-off we played with a real edge and confidence. Only after we conceded did we look a bit troubled."
Lewandowski's return to a 4-2-3-1 formation may have helped put the team at ease. "Lately, it looked like we were trapped a little bit in the 4-3-3," the 42-year-old said. "So, on Tuesday and Wednesday we specifically trained in other directions. We wanted to keep every option open."
He was the obvious option when it came to putting in a stop-gap replacement for Hyypiä when the Finn was dismissed last Saturday, though the new boss was not entirely comfortable with replacing his old colleague. "It's not easy for me to take over from Sami," admitted Lewandowski. "We were jointly in charge of this team for a whole year, and it is a pity when your former partner is unable to achieve his targets."
It might not have been a classic performance over 90 minutes, but Lewandowski has reached his first target at Leverkusen, who had bowed out of the UEFA Champions League and the German Cup and slipped from second to fifth in the Bundesliga with a run of just one win in 12 games in all competitions (including a draw and five defeats at home). Lewandowski said he was "overjoyed to have registered a home win – the last one was quite a while ago".
All of a sudden there is hope again. Fourth once more, and in the all-important final UEFA Champions League place, Leverkusen are back in the hunt. "There were some positive first signs," said captain Simon Rolfes, who came on for fellow midfielder Gonzalo Castro 20 minutes from the end. "That is something we have to build on." Lewandowski agreed. "I know the team, the situation, so I can quickly get back into this job," he noted. "There are still some problem areas, no question. There are still a lot of nerves. When you concede, a thousand questions shoot through your head. We still have a lot of work ahead."
However, that UEFA Champions League chance is sure to keep everyone's minds on the job. "Now we can do it under our own steam," the birthday boy concluded.