All things come to those who wait, and they certainly did for Bayer Leverkusen this weekend. They made it back into the top four. They did it by sweeping aside Eintracht Frankfurt who – after beating them 6-1 in the corresponding fixture last spring on their way to pipping Adi Hütter’s side to a Champions League spot – Peter Bosz’s side must have been desperately eager to face again here.
Perhaps most importantly they did it with a fresh, vital young lineup that they have been waiting some time to unleash. At long last the teenage Brazilian Paulinho made his first Bundesliga start, having arrived at the club from Vasco da Gama back in summer 2018. The moment matched the anticipation, with the 19-year-old scoring twice and creating another, earning gentle praise from his coach and leaving others wondering why it took so long for him to get his chance.
Bosz and co made it happen against Eintracht – Hütter could barely contain his anger at his own side’s display – by using the full extent of their squad, and that’s what they’ll have to continue to do in order to end the longest wait. The wait for silverware. If Die Werkself are to end a trophyless run that stretches back to their last DfB Pokal win in 1993, Leverkusen must turn a squad of promise into a group of substance. They have an exceptional chance to reach the cup final after being posted away to Saarbrücken in Sunday’s semi-final draw for the last four, while Rangers are on the horizon in a Europa League field that looks manageable.
The coach is certainly ready to give the idea a go. He made six changes to the XI that began the DfB Pokal quarter-final win over Union Berlin, but it took barely any time at all for them to get out of the blocks, with Kai Havertz putting away Moussa Diaby’s cross in the fourth minute. After that it was a torrent and though the scoring was complete at 4-0 via Paulinho’s delightful second in the 55th minute, it could have been worse than last year from Frankfurt had Leverkusen not have eased off a touch.
The tinkering to the lineup was not just a consequence of the Englische Wochen that Bosz underlined after the match, the endless two-game weeks that have been mounting up as Leverkusen have progressed in the cups. It was also necessitated by the season-ending injury to Kevin Volland, not just a consistent striker but one with a particular profile – not a fixed point but a bustling ball of energy, versatility and possibility.
Instead of using Paulinho as a direct replacement, Bosz pushed Havertz into a de facto centre-forward role, with the Brazilian just behind him. From that opener to the fourth, when Havertz’s perfectly timed pass was expertly dispatched past Kevin Trapp by Paulinho, it worked perfectly. “If we only have Lucas Alario [as a centre-forward], that’s not enough,” said Bosz. “I think we’ve shown that we can solve this problem as a team.”
The coach has made it clear that he sees his best player, at the grand old age of 20, as the ideal solution. Havertz scored 17 times last season but only twice in the Bundesliga before Christmas this term. Now, his six goals and seven assists in all competitions since the turn of the year make him the player with the most direct involvements in goals of any Bundesliga-based German in 2020. “He’s the full package,” enthused Bosz. “Since the turn of the year it’s been the Kai Havertz we all knew last season. He’s incredibly important for the team.”
On Saturday Havertz became the youngest player to reach 30 Bundesliga goals – surpassing Klaus Fischer. It’s unlikely to last, however, with Jadon Sancho currently on 27 and still over a fortnight shy of his 20th birthday. No matter. He is resubmitting his candidature as the best player in the Bundesliga outside the Bayern Munich-Borussia Dortmund axis and it is vital, not just to the immediate sporting present but to Leverkusen’s sense of self.
The club can always weather missing out on Champions League qualification, with them being slightly below elite and always on the cusp. Yet this is a club that’s stable, sensible and synonymous with developing players. For the opening months of this season, Paulinho was yet to make an impact, Diaby (also 20) didn’t play a full 90 minutes for his new club until November and even the crown prince Havertz struggled. With Leon Bailey having promised, intermittently looked world class and more often frustrated, it was easy to suggest Leverkusen were losing their touch.
This, now, is more like it, Champions League qualification or not. If Havertz can lead them to the promise land of trophies to which Michael Ballack – with whom he is often compared – never could, it would be the ultimate endorsement.