Bayer Leverkusen’s profligacy was carried from league to Champions League as the German club could only manage a third-place finish in their group. To qualify, Leverkusen had to beat a second-string Barcelona team, but squandered several great chances in the second half.
Lionel Messi opened the scoring on 20 minutes, but Javier Hernandez managed to equalize for Leverkusen three minutes later. The Mexican continues to be a regular source of goals for Roger Schmidt’s side who have dropped as low as eighth in the Bundesliga table. Last season’s Champions League winners Barcelona had already secured their qualification for the Round of 16 before the final round of matches.
"We were up against an aggressive Bayer Leverkusen," Barcelona Ivan Rakitic told reporters after his side’s 1-1 draw. "We put in a performance that will help us for the future."
Only Rakitic, Jordi Alba and Messi remained from the side which drew in Valencia at the weekend. Neymar was a late withdrawal after picking up a groin injury in the final training session on Tuesday, while Luis Suarez was named on the bench. With one win in seven games, Leverkusen’s performances are leaving a lot to be desired. Poor finishing, little experience and poor defending – just under half of their league goals conceded are from set-pieces – haven’t helped their cause.
But Schmidt’s men started purposefully with the aim of delivering knockout stage football for the third year running. Coordinating the runs between Calhanoglu and Bellarabi appeared rewarding from the start. Leverkusen’s Turkish attacking-midfielder fired an early effort at Marc-Andre ter Stegen, the former Borussia Mönchengladbach goalkeeper, but it was off target. Kevin Kampl – suspended for the next European match — was pulling the strings once again for the Werkself.
Bernd Leno was called into action on 16 minutes, confidently clutching a shot from Sandro. But Leno was unable to stop Messi from opening the scoring after 20 minutes, the little Argentine rounding the German keeper tucking home. The service though from Croatian Ivan Rakitic, who played with Schalke before leaving for Spain, was sublime. Collecting the ball in acres of space, Rakitic sliced open the Leverkusen defense with a killer diagonal pass and Messi finished his third goal of the tournament so far.
Having struggled of late – with just one clean sheet in 10 competitive games – Leverkusen’s response was out of the ordinary. Calhanoglu timed his angled run to perfection in the channels, his cutback found Hernandez and the Mexican rammed home his 13th of the season. Chicharito’s influence was eclectic: the more he tried to become involved, the more things broke down for the Germans. If anything, he’s shown in recent weeks that his strengths lie around the box, and not in link-play.
Barcelona’s eight-game winning run came to an end at the weekend with a draw at Valencia. With domestic matters and the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan to come, the intensity was evidently missing. Messi was marshaled well by Brazilian Wendell and his only other notable contribution of the first 45 minutes was to set up Jordi Alba who missed a decent chance after 26 minutes.
The quality of chances for the home side was particularly impressive given the 19 goals scored in the league is the lowest in 25 years for the club after 15 games. Calhanoglu tested Ter Stegen on 37 minutes before firing a wicked free-kick at the Barca keeper three minutes into the second half. There was a familiar sense that this would be another opportunity lost for Leverkusen — the club in Germany is mocked for falling at the final hurdle.
On 57 minutes, a loose ball fell for Calhanoglu in the box and his volley was agonizingly wide. Two minutes later, Ter Stegen stood firm and denied Bellarabi who was through one-against-one with the German U-21 international. Kampl’s shot on 63 minutes from distance was on target, but not enough to seriously test the keeper.
Schmidt added Stefan Kießling to the attack on 68 minutes as Leverkusen decided to twist. As the veteran striker took his position, the hosts had already launched another attack with Calhanoglu lobbing the ball into Hillbert, but his touch was off and the fresh air swipe from the Turk was representative of how things have been for Leverkusen in recent months.
With 10 minutes left, Kießling snatched at a second ball on the edge of the box and had he stayed composed, he probably would have burst the net. Frustration was the order of the evening and Hernandez squared up with Bellarabi in stoppage time. But even with Roma failing to beat BATE Borisov on the night, the Germans couldn’t get the all important second goal and drop into the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 with the Italians going through on a better head-to-head.
"I felt positive about our performance," Barcelona manager Luis Enrique told reporters after the match. "I wanted to give the players who have played the most minutes a rest and I saw good signs from us against a team that really had to win. The game was a litmus test for us.
"In the last 16 we’ll face whoever we’re lucky enough to be drawn with."