Author Archives: schnixb04

The Strange Case of Hanno Balitsch

The last weekend of the Hinrunde in the 2011/2012 Bundesliga season was one of the low points of the last five years for Bayer Leverkusen fans. Floating dangerously between the final European spot and the middle of the pack, the match against FC Nuernberg in the BayArena was supposed to send Leverkusen into the winter break with a victory and an important 3 points. The result was anything but that. Looking timid, tired, and totally out of ideas, Leverkusen had their collective rear-ends handed to them by a Bundesliga team battling to get out of the relegation zone. The mood of the trainer, team, and, most importantly, the fans after the game was a mixture of disbelief, confusion, and cynicism. Already during the game, fans had turned their backs to the embarrassing charade on the pitch and serenaded Robin Dutt and his players with sarcastic chants suggesting the trainer and a large portion of the team might be better off with other clubs.

The shock of finishing the first half of the season so poorly quickly gave way to feelings of anger, however, as Robin Dutt seemed to have taken the fans advice and began to clean house. The first player (and maybe not the last) to feel the wrath of the controversial trainer was Leverkusen’s defensive all-arounder, Hanno Balitsch, who was told that he no longer fit into Dutt’s plans for the team and could begin looking for a new club. Both trainer and player seem to have had a very strained relationship, one that apparently wasn’t helped by the outspoken Balitsch’s suggestions that Dutt’s system wasn’t working or wouldn’t work at Leverkusen. And so it seems the qualities that made Hanno such a fan-favorite, namely his outspoken nature and confrontational spirit, also helped speed up his departure from the club. Those fans who remember how Balitsch arrived at Bayer Leverkusen will also remember that he had a similar run-in at his former club, Hannover 96, with then-coach, Dieter Hecking. I am neither condemning nor condoning Balitsch’s supposed behavior, and at this point what occurred between trainer and player is still unclear, but Dutt’s reaction should be examined.

It’s no secret that Bayer Leverkusen has one of the smallest rosters in the Bundesliga. Add to that the fact that several key players, including Renato Augusto and Tranquilo Barnetta, are only just returning from injury, and Dutt’s release of an experienced and combative defender/midfielder seems, at best, bold. At the very least, Balitsch would have provided depth for a squad sorely in need of players, but for many fans he was also an answer to some of Leverkusen’s problems between defense and midfield. An active Balitsch, for example, could have been played at the RB (right-back) position, where the creative Gonzalo Castro has been marginalized in a limited defensive role. Alternatively, Balitsch’s style could have (and has) worked as a midfield “destroyer,” in which he is responsible for breaking up the opposition’s link-up play between midfield and offense. In short, his ability to play a number of positions like a pitbull should have made him an attractive candidate for more playing time. Dutt, ostensibly with the tacit permission of Rudi Voeller and Wolfgang Holzhaeuser, nevertheless felt Hanno’s worth on the pitch was not worth the headache he caused off of it.

Robin Dutt has made the task of bringing Leverkusen back among the top four Bundesliga clubs that much more difficult for himself. Not only because he removed a player from the roster, but primarily because he has removed a player who had very little to do with Leverkusen’s first-half swoon. Dutt seems to be grasping at straws as he tries to reassert his authority over a team that has seemingly stopped listening to its trainer. Whereas the removal of a player such as Simon Rolfes or Michael Ballack from a position of influence would have made a statement, the dismissal of Hanno Balitsch appears to be spiteful and not a little short-sighted. For the remaining players on the team, Dutt’s move will appear to be retribution for opening one’s mouth against the coach, and one has to question if any trust exists between the two parties anymore. If it does exist, there is a chance that Bayer Leverkusen can find their way back into the top three at the end of the season. If not, then Hanno Balitsch will be one of the lucky ones at the end of the season.

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Listen also to Episode 5 of the Neverkusen Podcast>> Click here

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Bernd Leno is here to stay…is Bayer?

When Bild, kicker magazine, and Bayer Leverkusen’s own website announced that 19-year old goal keeping phenom, Bernd Leno, had signed a five-and-a-half year contract to continue wearing the Bayer cross on his jersey, Leverkusen fans couldn’t be blamed for greeting the news with sudden cheer and then immediate sadness. Elation at signing one of the foremost young talents in the Bundesliga, and depression at the reality that we’ve probably seen the last of a Leverkusen goal-keeping legend, who has been with the club since 2000 as a youth. Rene Adler is working his way back to fitness after a patella injury (knee), and although his physical therapy is progressing, it also seems to be taking longer than most originally anticipated. In fact, in the last several days he has had to scale back his rehab schedule, suggesting that he won’t be back in early January as planned.

At the beginning of the season, Adler’s injury, and a lack of faith in in-house options David Yelldell and Fabian Giefer, was enough of a concern for Leverkusen brass, Rudi Völler and Wolfgang Holzhäuser, to make them look for a suitable replacement outside of the team. Enter 19 year old Bernd Leno, who was plying his trade as the back-up (and heir-apparent) goalkeeper at VfB Stuttgart. When he came to Leverkusen after the second game of the season it was to be on a half-season loan basis only, but that was before Leno kept three straight clean sheets in his first games and acquitted himself as a Champion’s League-quality keeper. By early October, it had become clear that it would be in Leverkusen’s (and Leno’s) best interest to retain him, and efforts were begun to ensure that he would stay at the BayArena after the initial loan period. Indeed, Leno offered his analysis of the situation by indicating that he wanted to be in Leverkusen and that it would be truly “bitter” for him if he couldn’t advance with the rest of the team into next year’s knock-out stage in the Champion’s League tournament.

Depending on reports, Leverkusen paid Stuttgart somewhere between 7 and 8 million Euros for Bernd Leno’s services – a fee that caused many Leverkusen jaws to drop. It is, as the glass half-empty pessimist will tell you, one of the most expensive goal keeper transfers ever within the league (only Manuel Neuer’s move to Bayern cost more – much more), but, as the glass half-full optimist will tell you, it’s less than what Stuttgart were asking for initially. Early on in the negotiations, Bayer had offered 6 million Euros to keep the young goalie, but Stuttgart came back with a stupefying demand of 10 million. After both sides quieted down somewhat they met again, and the final cost of the sale indicates that both sides made concessions and found a compromise all parties could live with. As Stuttgart’s own Fredi Bobic stated, “In the end, it was a business decision, which all interested parties could easily live with.”

Well, one interested party, Rene Adler, is probably not thrilled about this development, but he probably shouldn’t be the focus of this new deal. Adler, if he returns to 100% fitness, should have no problem finding another club to retain his services. Whether that’s in Germany or abroad is, at this time, inconsequential – if he’s willing to lower his asking price, he will play again, and at a high level. Rather, my focus is on the team that Leverkusen is (not so) slowly assembling, seemingly piece by piece. The second most important jewel of last summer’s transfer window was, of course, Andre Schuerrle, for whom Bayer paid almost the same amount of money as the it did for Leno. This coming summer, the club has already lined up CB Philip Wollscheid from FC Nuernberg for 5 million Euro, giving Leverkusen a potentially formidable, and more importantly young, interior back two with Omer Toprak.

The 13 million Euro that Leverkusen have spent for Leno and Wollscheid would appear to be a bargain for two of the most talented young players at their positions. We certainly know now where some of that 20 million Euro from the Champion’s League will be going, and we can only hope that it won’t be needed to pay penalties for the Tel Da Fax fiasco. But, more importantly, both are locked into contracts until 2017, which continues Leverkusen’s practice of handing out five year contracts to its younger players (sorry, Micha). Additionally, players like Schuerrle and Toprak are signed through 2016, and you have to believe that Leverkusen will do everything in their power to re-sign Lars Bender at the end of his term in 2014, while highly talented young players like Danny Da Costa and Karim Bellarabi will be asked to contribute more in the next years.

Now, any number of unanswered questions still stare Leverkusen in the face, especially what will happen with some of the current squad who are injured. Players like Renato Augusto, Hanno Balitsch, and Tranquilo Barnetta were expected to provide important leadership and/or reliable support, but the success of the team (especially in the Champion’s League) without these players suggests that they might not be as integral as previously thought. Older players like Simon Rolfes, Manuel Friedrich, and Michael Ballack will be handled on an individual basis, but one feels as if perhaps we should begin our good-byes soon.

Finally, to my point; as a glass half-full optimist, it feels as if the right foundations are being laid for…wait for it…a title by 2014/2015! Yes, it’s a pie in the sky dream that every Leverkusen fan has every couple of years, but it seems as if the stars are really starting to align again, and the current crop of young players being brought in suggests that Voeller and Holzhaeuser are intent on building a team to challenge the Bayerns and Dortmunds of the Bundesliga for the foreseeable future. And at the back of it all, standing confidently and non-plussed, will be a young man with the same initials as the team for which he plays. Bernd Leno, Bayer Leverkusen…it feels like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

A Twist of Leno

by SchnixB04 (follow on Twitter)

Heeeyyy, a twist of Leno,
Yeah, it drives my brain-o,
Yeah, a twist of Leno,
Makes me come alive!

At the conclusion of Leverkusen’s match against Borussia Mönchengladbach on Saturday, fans of goalkeeping, and goalkeepers in general, must have flicked off the television immensely satisfied by the performances of two of Germany’s most talented, young keepers. Marc-André ter Stegen, the man between the sticks for Mönchengladbach, held Leverkusen to an early goal and looked to be in line for a win until Bayer’s own André (Schürrle) scored his first goal for the Werkself in typical fashion. Taking the ball wide on the left, he cut inside and unleashed a devastating right-footed shot that ter Stegen had no chance to save. The Borussians had one final chance to win the match outright, but the hero of the day and the inspiration behind the twisted Danzig lyrics above, Bernd Leno, denied Marco Reus for what seemed like the 100th time at the final whistle. Particularly noteworthy was that the new face of young goalkeepers in Germany actually used his face to stop the shot, knocking himself unconscious in the process. After he came to Leno had to be told by a trainer that he had stopped the shot. How’s that for heroics?!

Saturday’s hero has inspired a lot of praise from football pundits, fans, and players alike during his short tenure at Levkerkusen. His journey to the BayArena and Champion’s League football (what you got, VfB?) hasn’t necessarily taken the most traditional route, but his current destination seems to be one that suits him. Leno played his first game for the Werkself on match day 2, replacing promising young Bayer keeper Fabian Giefer, who had suffered a concussion the week before. Geifer himself had replaced an ineffective David Yelldell, who had been brought from 2. Bundesliga club MSV Duisburg to replace the injured Rene Adler, whose knee injury ensured that he would be out until the new year. Leverkusen brass moved quickly to sign Leno, who was on the bench behind Sven Ulreich at VfB Stuttgart, on-loan until the end of the year. From his first start he looked like the answer to Leverkusen’s goalkeeping woes. Three clean sheets in his first three matches attested to his ability, and it must have been particularly satisfying for the 19-year old to come back to Stuttgart in his second match for Leverkusen and walk out of the Mercedes-Benz Arena a 1-0 winner.

Since then, Leno has been nothing short of “Lenomenal!” Showing a maturity beyond his years, the young man has been a wall for Bayer 04 since his arrival. Furthermore, he has also shown that the bright lights of the big stage do not frighten him, as his performances in both of Leverkusen’s Champion’s League matches have made clear. His most recent performance against ‘Gladbach was so impressive that you would have been hard pressed on Monday to find a newspaper that did not name Leno as their goalkeeper of the week. Naturally, his performance has fans and team brass swooning like 13-year old girls at a Justin Bieber concert, and last week Bayer’s CEO, Wolfgang Holzhäuser, even suggested holding on to Leno when Adler returns from injury. That is not likely to happen as neither keeper would be satisfied in a supporting role. How this situation will be resolved still remains to be seen, but until then Leverkusen fans should continue to enjoy the ride. After all, so far it’s been Lenomenal!

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Bayer vs. Bayern – A look at the past

by SchnixB04 (follow on Twitter)

On Saturday, Bayer Leverkusen will travel to the Allianz Arena in Munich to take on the current Bundesliga leader, Bayern Munich. The trip comes at a crucial time for Leverkusen, who are fresh off of a devastating home loss to arch-rivals Cologne. A loss (and there is no question that Bayern is the favorite) and Leverkusen will presumably find themselves treading water in the middle of the table and even further from their goal of qualifying for a Champion’s League spot next year. A draw would be ideal, as the Leverkusen defense hasn’t done anything in recent weeks to suggest that a victory is possible. Whatever does happen, one shouldn’t be surprised if the end result of the match is as one sided as so many of these previous matches have been.

In 1981, both teams met midway through the season as Bayern was in the running for another title. Leverkusen was very much middle of the table at this early point in its Bundesliga history, but behind three goals from Norwegian star Arne Larsen Oekland they sent the Bavarians packing with their tails between their legs. Oekland was actually credited with a fourth goal in the second half of the game by the referee and linesman. However, replays showed that the ball never actually crossed the line but rather smashed into the side netting. As Bayern players heatedly protested the unfairly given goal, Oekland quietly walked over to the referee and explained that the ball had never actually gone into the goal. The referee quickly thanked Oekland for his honesty, reversed his decision, and gave Bayern the goal kick. Leverkusen went on to win 3-0, but it can be argued that Oekland became more famous through that fourth, disallowed goal than through the actual hattrick. Today, he is the CEO of a Norwegian pizza chain!

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Another three-goal performance against Bayern came in 1997 when striker Markus Feldhoff scored a hattrick as Leverkusen waltzed past the Bavarians, 5-2. Feldhoff, who could never quite break into a starting forward lineup that at times included Ulf Kirsten, Rudi Voeller, and Paulo Sergio, chose the this moment to have his best game for the Rheinlanders; one of those games that turns an otherwise forgettable player into a hero. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he currently plies his trade as co-trainer of 2. Bundesliga club, Energie Cottbus.

A more recent victory against Bayern came during Leverkusen’s run to the German Cup final in 2009, which it ultimately lost to Werder Bremen. Prior to that disappointing 1-0 loss in the final, however, Leverkusen encountered the Bavarians in the quarterfinals. The eventual second-place finishers put the wood to Bayern that day, waiting until the second half to unleash holy hell. Goals by Tranquilo Barnetta, Arturo Vidal (remember him?!), Patrick Helmes, and Stefan Kiessling helped Leverkusen take a commanding lead and then hold off a Bayern comeback.

Sadly, these types of results have often been few and far between. For example, Bayern is responsible for Leverkusen’s worst loss at the BayArena, a 1-5 defeat in 1984. And Leverkusen fans will remember last year’s defeat of the same score when Bayer visited the Allianz Arena in the second half of the season. The Bayern team that will step onto the pitch on Saturday has been called by one executive “the best Bayern team since the 70s,” and that comparison may not be hyperbole. Leverkusen is going to have its hands full, but hopefully it can conjure up some memories of classic victories past. And a hattrick from Kiessling wouldn’t hurt, either!

Return to the Champions League

by SchnixB04 (follow on Twitter)

Tuesday, 13.09.2011 @ 20:45 (GMT+2)

On Tuesday, Bayer 04 Leverkusen return to the Champion’s League for the first time since 2005. Last year’s second-place finish ensured that the Werkself qualified for the CL’s group stages, and the recent draw has landed B04 in a competitive group that includes Belgian champion K.R.C. Genk, Spanish third-place finisher Valencia C.F., and perennial English powerhouse, Chelsea F.C. For their first test, Leverkusen faces the group favorite at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea looks to continue its consistent and impressive results in the Champion’s League. In anticipation of this match, let’s take a quick look at the team Leverkusen might encounter.

Although it appears as if all English clubs are basically chasing the two Manchester teams, Chelsea probably has the best chance of anyone to catch one of them if they slip up. After starting the season with three victories and one draw Chelsea finds itself in third place, two points behind City and United. Victories at home against West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City, coupled with an away tie and win against Stoke City and Sunderland, respectively, have Chelsea well positioned for another deep run in the Premiership title race but don’t doubt that the Champion’s League trophy is the piece of silverware most coveted by the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry, Didier Drogba, et. al.

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Although this match will be one of Leverkusen’s greatest challenges all season, Chelsea will go into the match with some questions about their lineup, especially in the attack. Last year’s mega-signing from Liverpool, Fernando Torres, is on an extremely short leash from new coach Andre Villas-Boas, having recently attributed his scoring struggles to the “advanced age” of some of his teammates. I am sure that midfield stalwarts such as Lampard and Florent Malouda were not exactly happy to hear Torres’ description of the team after supporting the striker during what has become a season-long goal drought going back to last year. Torres has yet to rediscover his form from his early days at Liverpool, and further complicating matters for Chelsea is the head injury and subsequent concussion suffered by star striker Didier Drogba a few weeks ago. Drogba has been ruled out of the CL match, which will allow Leverkusen’s back line to breathe somewhat more easily. Villas-Boas, who hasn’t been shy about threatening to drop Torres to a permanent bench spot, will likely look to recent suspension returnee Daniel Sturridge, who scored a lovely backheel goal over the weekend, and/or Chelsea stalwart and French malcontent, Nicolas Anelka.

Over the last decade, Chelsea’s midfield has paved the way for the club’s success. This year, too, fans will look to the midfield to provide the type of success they have become used to in recent years. Led, for what seems like forever, by (ex?) national team midfielder, Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s midfield finds itself not quite as settled as in years past. There is much talent on this part of the team, but as Torres himself stated, it’s not quite at the level that has been in the past. Florent Malouda hasn’t yet discovered his best form, and as in the last game at Sunderland, he might find himself on the bench once again in favor of Juan Mata. Malouda’s international club experience may prove to be too valuable to leave out of the lineup, however. Juan Mata’s arrival at Chelsea is a promising sign for an “aging” midfield, and it would be no surprise to see the young Spaniard start the CL match against Leverkusen as Chelsea looks to put its stamp on the game from the beginning. His creativity and offensive prowess will be invaluable against a susceptible Leverkusen back line. It’s likely that the rest of the midfield will be rounded out by Raul Meireles and Mikel, two midfielders who can defend and attack with pace. Ramires, who is suspended for this match and who will be missed, will have to watch from the stands.

Chelsea’s defense is probably the most settled part of their lineup and can boast some truly world-class players. Led by captain John Terry, whose best days are behind him but who still commands the respect of his teammates, the back line has the potential to make the lives of Leverkusen midfielders a living hell. Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa will be able to attack with pace along the left and right touch lines, and Leverkusen’s wing midfielders will be asked to track back often to nullify this threat. In the middle Terry will likely partner with Branislav Ivanovic, who has been a solid substitute for the injured (and awesome) David Luiz. Luiz may be nearing a return to fitness, and his inclusion in this match may be a possibility. Whosoever ends up playing in that position, Leverkusen’s attackers will need to be at their best to crack this experienced and dangerous back line.

Whether Chelsea ends up playing a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, Villas-Boas will look to pressure Leverkusen early and often to take control of the game. The Chelsea trainer will have certainly taken note of Leverkusen’s victory at Augsburg, in which the 4-1 scoreline favored Bayer04 more than it deserved. Augsburg’s attackers were constantly able to harass Leverkusen’s defensive wingers, running down the wings and cutting inside with regularity. Villas-Boas has a bevy of talented midfielders and defenders who will be chomping at the bit to attack Leverkusen’s most vulnerable positions.

Now for some totally biased and subjective analysis: Leverkusen can achieve a draw, and also the all-important away goal, at Stamford Bridge. This optimism stems in part from the injuries or suspensions suffered by key Chelsea players, including GK Peter Cech, who returned early on the weekend from a knee injury, Drogba, and Ramires. Leverkusen has their own injury/suspension concerns, but the team has been making do with a patchwork back line/midfield for some time now and the adjustment should not prove too difficult. Michael Ballack, no matter his role on Tuesday, brings CL experience to a team without much and he will be motivated to leave his impression on the game. He will be further motivated by the fact that Chelsea FC, in a show of great class, will honor Ballack before the match for his time with the English club. The key to the game, in my opinion, will be how the wingers for Leverkusen play both on offense and defense. Chelsea has the ability to take the game to its opponent, and Leverkusen will have to absorb this pressure and choose its moments of attack on the counter well. Either way, the matchup promises to be an entertaining one, and a great re-introcuction to the highest level of competition in European club football for Leverkusen.

Line-up prediction

Chelsea:
P.Cech-Bosingwa,Ivanovic,Terry,A. Cole-Mikel-Mata,Lampard,Raul Meireles-Fernando Torres,Anelka

Injuries/Suspension:
Didier Drogba is out with concussion while Michael Essien (knee) is a long term absentee.  Ramires will miss the game due to a suspension.

Leverkusen:
Leno-Castro,Reinartz,Toprak,Kadlec-Bender,Rolfes-Sam,Ballack,Schürrle-Kießling

Injuries:
Rene Adler, Bastian Oczipka, Tranquillo Barnetta and Michael Ortega

Viel Glueck, Jungs!