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Atlético win shows that Leverkusen are learning

The fact Bernd Leno was the best player in a first half bossed by Bayer 04 Leverkusen hinted at a confusing narrative but the German side's development is plain to see.

Ever the wallflower, Kyriakos Papadopoulos reluctantly leads Leverkusen celebrations at full time
Ever the wallflower, Kyriakos Papadopoulos reluctantly leads Leverkusen celebrations at full time ©Getty Images

It was a typically explosive start from Bayer 04 Leverkusen in their round of 16 first leg at home to Club Atlético de Madrid. Intense pressing, lightning-quick counters and boundless energy.

Roger Schmidt's high-octane strategy has become more habit than hardship for the Werkself since he took over last summer. Their domestic form may have been patchy in recent weeks, but in the UEFA Champions League the Bundesliga outfit showed no fear against last season's runners-up, forcing them on the back foot for the majority of the opening half-hour.

Emir Spahić's long-range drive, which thundered against the angle, may have been the only registered shot on target in that timeframe, but further chances did materialise. There was no doubt who was dominating, as Leverkusen's 60% possession reflected.

Yet as half-time approached, a familiar feeling began to emanate from the home crowd. They had seen it all before. Twice in the group stage they had held the upper hand but failed to make it count, with AS Monaco FC stealing solitary goals both home and away to take a harsh six points off them. As Atlético grew towards the interval, Leverkusen fans feared the worst.

Leverkusen joy after Atlético win
Leverkusen joy after Atlético win

Thankfully, from their point of view, the excellent Bernd Leno clawed the ball away before Antoine Griezmann could nod into an empty net and made a brilliant one-handed parry to keep out Tiago's acrobatic attempt.

It made for some peculiar conversations at the break. Leverkusen had been the better side – yet their goalkeeper had arguably been the most important player. That did not bode well; nor did the fact Atlético had scored ten of their 14 goals in this term's competition in the second half of matches.

But Leverkusen have learned. They have learned from those group stage defeats by Monaco that you have to take your opportunities in the UEFA Champions League. They have learned that if you don't, you will more than likely be punished.

And this time they did seize their moment courtesy of Josip Drmić's persistence and Karim Bellarabi's unselfishness combined with class and ultimately an emphatic finish from Hakan Çalhanoğlu, through whom all things positive ran for Leverkusen.

Hakan Çalhanoğlu fires in the only goal
Hakan Çalhanoğlu fires in the only goal©Getty Images

Even then, a single away goal for Atlético would have turned the tables and the Spaniards duly went for it, bringing on Fernando Torres to bolster an already fearsome attack containing Griezmann and Mario Mandžukić.

To no avail, though, as Leverkusen defended intelligently, introducing Simon Rolfes to sit in front of the back four and withdrawing the more box-to-box Lars Bender, running out of steam on his return from injury. Proceedings further played into the Bundesliga team's hands when Tiago was dismissed with just under a quarter of an hour remaining.

Bayer may yet regret not going all out for a second goal against ten men, but right now that is mere conjecture. Crucial for Leverkusen was not conceding. That mission accomplished, they can now head to Spain in three weeks' time knowing an away goal of their own will put them firmly on course for the quarter-finals.