Arguably the most interesting match of the 27th round in the Bundesliga was played on Saturday between Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen at the Borussia Park.
The top-four race in the German top flight is very exciting at the moment. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were leading the way before this round with 58 and 54 points, respectively. Gladbach were next with 52, then RB Leipzig with 51, and Leverkusen in fifth with 50. With these numbers in mind, the importance of this clash was quite clear.
Gladbach boss Marco Rose was without the services of midfielder Denis Zakaria and fullback Fabian Johnson.
Yann Sommer stood between the posts. Matthias Ginter paired up with Nico Elvedi at the back, and the two of them were flanked by Ramy Bensebaini on the left and Stefan Leiner on the right. Florian Neuhaus and Tobias Strobl were tasked with providing the back four with added protection. Jonas Hofmann and Marcus Thuram started on the wings, with Breel Embolo playing through the middle along with Alassane Plea.
Peter Bosz in the away dugout couldn’t count on midfielder Lars Bender and forward Kevin Volland.
Lukas Hradecky was in goal. The trio of Sven Bender, Aleksandar Dragovic and Edmond Tapsoba formed the back line. Charles Aranguiz and Kerem Demirbay played in the middle of the park, flanked by Mitchell Wieser and Daley Sinkgraven as wing-backs. Upfront, Kai Havertz was joined by Moussa Diaby and Karim Bellarbi.
The First Half
The tone for the most of the game was set pretty much straight away. Gladbach looked to control the ball and move forward in a patient manner, while Leverkusen played responsibly at the back and moving the ball at great pace when in possession. Soon it became quite obvious that the visitors were much better at putting their plans into action.
Only six minutes were gone when Demirbay involved Bellarabi on the right wing and a great pass found the run of Havertz in behind, and the in-demand attacker coolly slotted in, giving Sommer no chance whatsoever to thwart him.
The visitors continued their quick-passing play, giving Gladbach players a lot to deal with, and in the 12th minute another problem struck the home team. Embolo was forced off with an injury and replaced by Lars Stindl.
However, Gladbach showed much more resolution in the period that followed. They kept the ball in Leverkusen’s half of the pitch, pressing high and recycling attacks for several minutes, but apart from a few hopeful crosses and attempted shots, they didn’t have anything to show for their efforts just yet.
Leverkusen were meanwhile obviously content with the way the game was going. They defended in numbers and looked to hit through quick breaks. Though their attacks weren’t successful any more than those of their opponents, they could afford to let the time pass without excitement. They were now in control.
But in the 22nd minute, both teams wasted a potential chance in quick succession. Dragovic’s mistake first gave Leiner a free run down the right for Gladbach, but the fullback wasn’t decisive enough and his low pullback was poor. Leverkusen then sprang a counterattack and Havertz was away down the left, past Elvedi before pulling it back for the incoming Bellarabi, but the winger was crowded out by the Gladbach defence.
Three minutes later, Bender hit a volley from just inside the box after a corner, but he couldn’t hit anywhere near the target. As the home side moved forward in numbers after that, they were almost caught on the counter again, but Bellarabi’s low shot from a tight angle was this time saved by Sommer.
At this point, the situation already looked pretty hopeless for Rose’s team. There simply wasn’t any creativity in their attacks and they were constantly exposed at the back by the pace and skill of Leverkusen’s attacking trio.
Havertz made the reasons for his links with top clubs across Europe very clear. His movement was extremely difficult to track, and his ideas on the ball were just as hard to read. Both Bellarabi and Diaby continuously proved capable of beating opponents with pace and tricky feet, and the result was that Leverkusen always looked the more likely team to score. On the other side of the pitch, their defenders and goalkeeper were barely being tested throughout the first half.
That could explain, to an extent, Hradecky’s mistake in the 41st minute which almost cost his team the lead. A low, trickling shot came his way from 20 yards and he spilled it. But just as Plea and Thuram rushed forward to try and poke it in, he redeemed himself by getting there first. It was very close.
It was even closer for Leverkusen in the final minute of the 45. A brilliant trick by Diaby got Havertz in clear, but Havertz wasn’t as cool as when he scored the opener. His shot hit the bar and the ball fell to Demirbay, who appeared to have the gaping goal at his mercy before Elvedi cleared his shot off the very line.
The Second Half
Gladbach tried to push hard from the restart, pressing high again and looking to keep the ball as close as possible to Hradecky’s goal, but Leverkusen again threatened with darting runs forward whenever they won the ball. Nonetheless, the home team’s moves now looked better linked, there was more intent and organization in the way they went forward.
In the 50th minute, Hradecky’s clearance went astray and was picked up by Bensebaini some 25 yards from the Leverkusen ‘keeper, but his subsequent shot went wide of the near post.
The Leverkusen defence was being made to work harder and all the warnings were there, but they were still caught flat-footed in the 52nd minute, when Thuram held the ball up for his teammates and then darted forward. Plea’s pass into the box found him perfectly, and the winger smashed a volley low past Hradecky.
However, Gladbach’s joy wasn’t to last long. After Thuram almost gave them the lead two minutes from equalizing, Bellarabi was taken out by Elvedi in their box and referee Soren Storks gave a penalty. VAR reviewed the call and Storks himself took another look on the pitch-side screen, but the decision was confirmed. Havertz stepped up and almost saw his shot saved by Sommer, but the ball bounced into the net.
Gladbach almost equalized again in the 64th minute and Thuram was once more in the thick of things. He brilliantly tamed a long pass just inside the box, flicking it on for the incoming Neuhaus, but the midfielder failed to put it in the net.
Two minutes later, Bosz decided it was time to freshen his team up a bit and Leon Bailey came on to replace Bellarabi.
The penalty and the second goal conceded didn’t dampen Gladbach’s spirit too much; they attacked more and played much quicker, breaking through the visitors’ lines more easily than before. Thuram was a particularly nasty pain in the backsides of the Leverkusen defenders, harassing them constantly with a heavy physical approach, though he could obviously have done with a bit of support.
But with 15 minutes to go, Leverkusen wasted a glorious chance, perhaps to put the game to bed. Diaby slalomed into the box and had a shot from a tight angle saved by Sommer, only for the rebound to find Demirbay alone with the goal gaping. But Demirbay simply couldn’t keep his head and his attempt went high over the bar.
Then Rose made two changes. Laszlo Benes came on to replace Strobl, and Oscar Wendt surprisingly came on for Thuram. Bosz’s response was to withdraw Dragovic and send on Julian Baumgartlinger.
But before any of the substitutes could do anything, Demirbay’s free-kick cross from the left found Bender on the edge of six yards. The Leverkusen defender beat Elvedi in the air and headed past Sommer.
The home side weren’t prepared to throw in the towel just yet. Plea had three chances in three minutes, but twice he headed off target and Hradecky produced a fabulous save to deny his powerful shot from around 10 yards. Gladbach even had a penalty appeal three minutes before the end, but Havertz obviously had no way of avoiding the ball touching his arm and the referee wasn’t interested.
It was a commendable late effort to try and get something from the game, but with a two-goal deficit, it was obviously too late.
Looking at it from all angles, it’s fair to say that Leverkusen deserved to take the three points home. To put it simply, they were the better team over 90+ minutes, but Gladbach could also argue that they were hard done by. The penalty which restored Leverkusen’s lead was doubtful to say the least and it was almost saved, and they had quite a few chances of their own.
But in the end, the visitors controlled the proceedings most of the time, and the quality of their attacker was a bit too much for the Gladbach defence, especially in the first half.
Leverkusen have now moved past Gladbach in the table, as well as past RB Leipzig. They sit third, five points behind Bayern Munich who have a game in hand, and four behind Borussia Dortmund. The race for the Champions League spots promises to be a thrilling one, right down to the end.
BORUSSIA MONCHENGLADBACH: Sommer 7.5, Ginter 6.5, Elvedi 7, Bensebaini 6, Lainer 7, Neuhaus 6, Strobl 5.5 (76’ Benes 5.5), Embolo N/A (12’ Stindl 6.5), Hofmann 5.5, Thuram 7.5 (78’ Wendt N/A), Plea 7.
BAYER LEVERKUSEN: Hradecky 6.5, Bender 7.5, Tapsoba 7, Dragovic 6 (81’ Baumgartlinger N/A), Aranguiz 7, Demirbay 7.5, Weiser 7, Sinkgraven 7, Diaby 7.5, Bellarabi 7.5 (66’ Bailey 7), Havertz 8.
GOALS: Havertz 7’, 58’ (P), Thuram 52’, Bender 81’.
YELLOW CARDS: Diaby 62’, Bensebaini 71’.
REFEREE: Soren Storks.
DATE & VENUE: May 23, 2020, Borussia-Park, Monchengladbach.