Tag Archives: Bayer Leverkusen

In defence of the away goals rule

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Look, we’ve all been burned by it or adorded it, so let’s talk about the away goals rule in the Champions League.

For me, I’ll never forget the time Manchester United lost to Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League semi-final on away goals. Having drew 2-2 at Old Trafford, the Germans slipped through our grasps and snuck into the final in a 1-1 that will have me shaking my head for all eternity.

At least Zinedine Zidane scored that blinder in the final.

So many complain about it, while those same voices are eerily quiet when it works in their favour. With that in mind, do we really need the away goals rule? Is it really fair to everyone? Or is it just a way to avoid extra time like it’s the plague for club sides?

In the last six years, eight knockout ties have been settled by the away goals rule with at least one each year. Four of the opening ties were won by the home side, Paris Saint-Germain drew twice to Barcelona in 2012-13 and to Chelsea in 2014/15, while the other two were defeats for Arsenal at the Emirates.

Two of those four that won their opening home fixture secured safe passage to the next round, while both of the Gunners’ initial defeats could not be turned around away from home. PSG’s two draws saw them knocked out at the Camp Nou but qualify in extra time on away goals at Stamford Bridge.

In some, like Marseille’s passage in 2011/12 over Inter Milan and Arsenal’s two losses, the rule looks incredibly harsh. The Ligue 1 side won the tie in the very last second, having held on for 74 minutes before the Italians nabbed two goals only to see it slip on one mistake in the dying embers.

As for the Gunners’ pair of clashes, three goals conceded at home in opening legs killed the ties. On both occasions, they managed to score two away without conceding but alas, the away goals rule states that is not good enough.

Then again, it gives some teams their just rewards. Atletico Madrid were excellent in their semi-final over Bayern Munich last season, with their away goal coming whilst the tie was level at 1-1 and Chelsea’s excellent 2-0 win at home meant the single goal they stole from a drab affair at the Parc des Princes earned them rightful passage to the next round.

In truth, it does tend to hand the advantage to the away side in that first leg. In the 78 games played in the knockout stages in the last six years, the away side has only failed to score in the first game on 27 occasions.

58 of those 78 sides that start away have gone through. However, with seeding affording you that opportunity through qualifying top of your group, it’s not a surprise as you expect a stronger team to be heading on the plane first.

What is extremely interesting is when it comes down to the semi-finals, when the true big teams match up without a seeding advantage. Only one side that went away in the first leg has qualified for the final in the last 10 attempts, Real Madrid being the sole victor over Manchester City last season.

That shows that when it is whittled down to the crème de la crème, the law doesn’t matter. In fact, only one semi-final has required away goals in that span, which was the aforementioned Atletico win, while only one other has gone down to penalties.

In the end, UEFA are forced into a little bit of a corner. The rule is there, on paper at least, to encourage attacking play from the away sides in both legs but more often than not, it causes it in the first leg while the home side sit on anything they’ve gained in the follow-up match.

At the same time, no club wants to play extra time in midweek with a busy domestic schedule that has everyone vying for silverware too. It also tends not to matter in the slightest when it really comes down to the best of the best, so isn’t it a relatively amicable way to thin the herd early doors?

You could tweak it a little, potentially switching the seeding around to test the big teams but with clubs highly unlikely to want to force extra time and the rule needing to be applied fairly irregularly, they will stick to their guns. And so they should, It does encourage exciting ties in the long run and can keep teams in them for longer if they really give it their all.

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RB Leipzig are the blueprint of how to make a football club

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Keita has been terrific and the win against Dortmund lit the fir under the RB machine. Source: ESPN

Germany doesn’t particularly like it but there’s no denying that RasenBallsport Leipzig have nailed exactly how to create a football club.

Loathed for not being a traditional Deutschland club, having been born by drinks company Red Bull in 2009, they lead the Bundesliga having been unbeaten so far this season. They invested in a young, exciting squad with the potential to grow, either as part of the team or to sell on, and have also ploughed money into state-of-the-art facilities themselves to grow as a club themselves.

If you want to learn a little more, check out this great piece by Ross Dunbar on Fox Sports Asia here.

However, what they have done in the past is not what I wanted to focus on. Having watched them on TV once or twice, finally seeing them against Bayer Leverkusen live a few weeks ago just confirmed it: Ralph Hasenhuttl, along with sporting director Ralf Rangnick, have created a side that are genuine title contenders at the time of writing.

A team doesn’t remain this long unbeaten by just luck alone. Wins at home to Borussia Dortmund and away at the aforementioned Leverkusen only confirms it and when you look into how they have succeed, it becomes much clearer.

They’ve scored as many goals as BvB, they have only conceded more than Bayern Munich and another surprise package in Cologne and they have created entertainment wherever they go. They are fast, they are creative, they are strong and when on song, they can be electric.

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Forsberg has been stellar and has been the best player in the Bundesliga this season. Source: BBC

The real engine of the Leipzig machine is Swedish international Emil Forsberg. A relative unknown on the European scene with his former club Malmo, the 25-year-old has exploded this season as the main man for RB with five goals and seven assists.

Those statlines are impressive enough but when you watch Forsberg play, you understand his influence. He’s an incredibly clever player always looking for avenues to bring the abundance of quick, dangerous attacking players that are around him into areas that hurt the opposition.

The Swede always plays with his head up, eyes wandering to find an avenue to attack an opponent. He has wonderful close ball control, a surprising burst that allows him to seemingly drift past tackles and a wand for a foot that can either pick a locked defence or waft a set piece into the goal.

It’s not hard to say without him, it’s unlikely that Leipzig would still be unbeaten. He is the real heartbeat, piecing together their stern defence and their frightening attack to create a real behemoth that no one has worked out how to stop.

That’s not to say he’s the only one firing on all cylinders. Naby Keita has been superb in a box-to-box role, seemingly popping up all over the pitch to break up play and occasionally break into the final third, where he has picked up four goals so far.

Their defence is marshalled by Willy Orban, who has organised them well with his power and positioning into the joint-second best defence in the Bundesliga. They have a scary front that includes top scorer Timo Werner, Austrian winger Marcel Sabitzer, Danish striker Yussuf Poulsen, former Werder Bremen man Davie Selke and Scottish international Oliver Burke.

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Hasenhuttl has established a style and a solidity to Leipzig that has worked to perfection. Source: T-online.de

The amount of options they have in those attacking areas are staggering, especially when you then look at the stats. Each has scored and assisted at least once, with Werner excelling with seven goals and two assists. That’s not to diminish Sabitzer’s contribution of four goals and three assists or Burke’s goal and two assists from predominantly substitute appearances.

With that said, they could do with more from either Poulsen or Selke in terms of hitting the back of the net but their size and power really compliment the speed and creativity around them. It’s genuinely scary that the main strikers aren’t quite firing and yet they still lead the standings.

Hastenhuttl has also established an exciting style build on a collective strength based on restricting the opponent. They constrict the opponent when they have the ball, boxing them into a small area without easy options and can restrict them to the point of them giving them the ball, allowing them to use Forsberg and their pace to counter.

Where they need to improve in that regard is to work on being countered themselves and stopping teams playing quickly against them. When they are not allowed to settle into their structure, they can be opened up a little too easily and quick play has seen teams get in behind their defence too often.

That still feels like nit-picking on a fantastic start to the season that was built upon solid foundations that should help grow success in the future. While the next stage of their success will be in the air for a while, producing talent of your own in any club changing its culture can take five-to-ten years to bear fruit but they have started on the right track.

They have a real project that is attracting young players wishing to create their own history and if they can keep them on-board to maintain this start, we could have a new name near the head of the Bundesliga table for years to come.

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The slow growth of the Europa League

It's great to see the competition finally get a little more recognition.  Source: YouTube

It’s great to see the competition finally get a little more recognition. Source: YouTube

Lambasted for years as being a punishment for teams who dropped out of the Champions League and a burden for those who had to play on a Thursday night but in the last year or so, the Europa League has really grown into an interesting and stronger competition.

The real change has been the reward for winning, with the victors gaining an automatic spot in next season’s Champions League. It’s an added incentive not just to those who qualify for the Europa League but to those who fall out of the main competition too, knowing that winning isn’t just a trophy but a place back at the big table for next season.

The quality of teams entering the competition has also gone up as teams across Europe become a little more competitive. The likes of Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Lazio, Fiorentina, Valencia, Villarreal, Marseille, Monaco, Saint-Etienne, Bordeaux, Schalke, Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, Besiktas and Fenerbahce were all in the first round and some even failed to qualify for the knockout stages.

Then you also look at the sides that failed to make the next round last night. Teams such as Galatasaray, FC Porto and Napoli, who all fell from the Champions League, lost out on a place in the next round along with a number of strong sides.

It’s then highlighted by the good games we shall see in the Last 16. Liverpool against Manchester United, Spurs versus Dortmund, Villarreal facing Bayer Leverkusen, Athletic Bilbao opposite Valencia all showcase the strength that the Europa League has started to boast.

Admittedly, it still doesn’t compete with the might of the Champions League’s teams but at the same time, there are plenty of prestigious clubs that all would like to lift the trophy at the end. Some, like Liverpool or United, could see this as their best opportunity of reaching next season’s Champions League and adding some silverware to that is enough incentive for teams to play stronger teams.

As the competition keeps going, it will hopefully become something a little more than it has been. Less of playing youth products, more a place to use the strength of a good squad or simply to use as momentum like teams had used European competitions in the past.

If anything, it’s great to watch a good competition full of teams that always come up with a little surprise. Seeing a player like Pione Sisto for FC Midtjylland step up against good competition is excellent to see and for any obsessive football fan, the fact they get to see more talent from different corners of Europe is only a good thing.

It will never fully step out of the shadow of the Champions League but at the same time, it doesn’t have to. What is good is that it’s starting to gain more respect, more viewership and probably the most important thing, more teams want to win it.

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