Leverkusen's young team primed for Champions League return
By CIARAN FAHEY
Apr. 12, 2018
BERLIN (AP) — Bayer Leverkusen is on course for a return to the Champions League.
Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich, who had no top-flight experience when he was appointed before the season, has created a competitive team capable of free-flowing attacking soccer thanks to the continued development of up-and-coming players like 21-year-old Julian Brandt, 20-year-old Leon Bailey, 19-year-old Panagiotis Retsos and 18-year-old Kai Havertz.
All four scored or assisted as Leverkusen came from behind to win 4-1 in Leipzig on Monday.
Brandt, Germany's youngest player for last month's friendly games against Spain and Brazil, extended his Leverkusen contract by two years the week before, when he said Lars Bender and Jonathan Tah's recent contract extensions also influenced his decision to stay.
"One significant reason is clearly the team," Brandt said after signing through 2021. "In my opinion, we have a great team, with fantastic players and great characters."
Leverkusen is also reportedly looking to sign midfielder Mitchell Weiser from league rival Hertha Berlin. The club is clearly looking to the future.
Brandt, who has seven league goals and five assists so far this season, is one of many to have benefited from Herrlich's arrival.
Bailey is enjoying his best days at Leverkusen since his switch in January 2017. The Jamaican has nine Bundesliga goals and set up seven more this season, and will undoubtedly be the subject of interest from foreign clubs in the offseason. League champion Bayern Munich is another potential suitor.
Only Kevin Volland and Lucas Alario have scored more than Bailey, both chipping in 11 league goals.
Victory over Leipzig lifted Leverkusen back up to fourth, the last qualification place for the Champions League, though Eintracht Frankfurt can overtake them with a win in Leverkusen on Saturday. Five matches remain.
Herrlich previously led Jahn Regensburg to the second division from Germany's fourth tier, and he has shown that he is just as much at home in the top division with Leverkusen.
The 46-year-old coach has provided the basis for his players to flourish. They understand their tasks - even when changes to the formation are made. Herrlich also identifies problems and makes mid-game tactical changes when things are not going the team's way.
"We give everything, every player on the pitch," Retsos said of the team's spirit after scoring his first Bundesliga goal on Monday.
Leverkusen will be without Wendell for the next four weeks after the 24-year-old Brazilian defender tore ligaments in his left ankle in Leipzig. The game also took its toll on midfielder Sven Bender (ankle) and goalkeeper Bernd Leno (knee). Both are fighting to be fit for Frankfurt's visit.
"I think the pair of them are tough and they'll be ready for Saturday," said Bender's twin brother, Lars, the Leverkusen captain. "It's a bit easier to go beyond the pain barrier now because we're in the busy period of the run-in."
After Frankfurt, Leverkusen faces games at Borussia Dortmund, against Stuttgart and at Werder Bremen before its last league game against Hannover.
While a return to the Champions League is the team's main goal, Leverkusen has the chance for more with a home semifinal match against Bayern in the German Cup next Tuesday.