Roger Schmidt could barely have made a better start to his reign as Bayer Leverkusen coach, but the early lustre has somewhat faded. His first competitive game yielded a 6-0 win at Alemmania Waldalgesheim in the German Cup, and FC Copenhagen were dismissed 7-2 on aggregate in the Champions League qualifiers. Schmidt had promised Bayer fans free-flowing football in the same style he espoused at his previous club Red Bull Salzburg, and he was delivering.
Bayer kicked off their Bundesliga campaign with a spectacular performance at Borussia Dortmund. Winger Karim Bellarabi, reinvigorated after last season’s loan spell at Eintracht Braunschweig, scored the fastest goal in Bundesliga history after just nine seconds. Relentless pressing kept Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund at bay, and Stefan Kiessling sealed a 2-0 win with virtually the last kick.
So far so good, but after a flawless defensive display at Signal Iduan Park, Bayer started to show some cracks. There were signs of instability against Hertha Berlin, as Bayer had to twice come back from a goal down to win 4-2, and the subsequent 3-3 draw with Werder Bremen made Die Werkself look naïve and gung-ho.
A 4-1 defeat at Wolfsburg set alarm bells ringing – the seventh-minute sending-off of right-back Giulio Donati hardly helped – but at least Schmidt has steadied the ship with a 1-0 win over Augsburg and a goalless stalemate at Freiburg. Bayer are third in the table, three points behind leaders Bayern Munich.
On Wednesday attention switches to the Champions League, and Bayer are under pressure after a 1-0 defeat at Monaco. Against a side struggling badly under new coach Leonardo Jardim, Leverkusen’s attacking players fluffed their lines, missing several good chances. Another group-stage defeat to Benfica may leave Bayer with too much work to do to escape a tough group.
Benfica have had plenty of domestic success under coach Jorge Jesus. They won the league and two cups in Portugal last season and have reached the last two Europa League finals. While this is all very laudable, Jesus sets high standards, and he knows failure in the Champions League is a gaping hole in his record. The Eagles have a proud history in the competition, having been crowned continental champions in 1961 and 1962, but they have failed to escape the group stage in three of the past four seasons.
As is often the case with the big Portuguese clubs at the end of a successful season, Benfica lost key players over the summer. Granite-jawed defensive goliath Ezequiel Garay defected to Zenit, while long-serving striker Oscar Cardozo moved to Trabzonspor. Promising goalkeeper Jan Oblak was recruited by Atletico Madrid, and elusive winger Lazar Markovic became part of the post-Suarez rebuilding job at Liverpool.
Despite the departures, Benfica already have a four point lead at the top of the Primeira Liga. But, a 2-0 home defeat to Zenit on Matchday One has put them on the back foot in this Champions League group. A trip to the BayArena will hold no fear for Benfica though, as they beat Leverkusen home and away two seasons ago in the knockout phase of the Europa League.
With talented playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu alongside Kiessling, Bellarabi and the in-form Heung-Min Son – who has scored two goals in his last four games – Bayer certainly have the firepower to give Benfica problems, but questions remain over whether Schmidt can strike a balance between attack and defence. The question mark over Jesus is whether he can succeed at the highest level of club football, and he needs a positive answer soon.
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