The Nearly Men: Bayer Leverkusen


Butt and Lucio look on as Zidane scores THAT goal

Butt and Lucio look on as Zidane scores THAT goal

Season: 2001/2

Roberto Carlos runs down the left. He hooks the ball high into the box hoping a team-mate can make something of his hopeful ball. Thankfully the ball falls to Zinedine Zidane. The French genius swings his left boot and scores the most replayed goal in Champions League history to clinch a 2-1 victory in the 2002 final at Hampden Park.

That goal has been shown over and over and over again but little attention is paid to the unfortunate goalkeeper who had to watch it sail past him. His name is Hans Jorg Butt, Bayer Leverkusen’s penalty taking goalkeeper. But a custodian with a penchant for a penalty was not the only impressive thing about this German side.

A young Michael Ballack marauded from midfield finding the net 25 times in all competitions, while experienced international Bernd Schneider probed from the right. The underrated Ze Roberto was in the form of his life on the left flank, fizzing in cross after cross for the onrushing Ballack and the lively Oliver Neuville or occasionally a young Dimitar Berbatov.

Meanwhile, Carsten Ramelow held the fort in midfield, often dropping deep to form a back three with an emerging Lucio and the old injury ravaged head of Jan Nowotny.

Klaus Toppmoller’s side had a magnificent season, with their direct, fast style causing all sorts of problems for opponents, with their Champions League form in particular, catching the eye. In fact, Leverkusen saw off England’s top three sides (Arsenal, Liverpool & Manchester United) on route to the final, much to the disappointment of the English media.

However, the German outfit faltered badly in the run-in, becoming the first side to finish runners-up in the league, the domestic cup and the Champions League. Zidane’s volley ended their Champions League dream, while Schalke saw them off in the cup final but their capitulation in the league is what will have hurt the most. Five points ahead with just three games left but two defeats allowed Borussia Dortmund to pounce and snatch the title.

Ballack, Schneider, Ramelow and Neuville would all play a significant part in Germany’s World Cup side that summer but they failed in yet another final, this time foiled by Ronaldo and an extremely rare error from Oliver Kahn.

Sadly, we never got the chance to see if Leverkusen could bounce back as the team was mercilessly picked apart by Bayern Munich (much as they are attempting to do to Dortmund now). Ballack and Ze Roberto left that summer, while Lucio would follow them two years later. The 2002/3 season saw a dramatic fall in performance as they found themselves battling relegation, a situation which cost Toppmoller his job.

The club have recovered since and under the stewardship of Sami Hyypia they have returned to Europe’s premier competition but they are unlikely to ever hit the heights of 2002 ever again. A quintessential “what if?” story.

Lead image courtesy of flickr.com
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