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30.04.2022Bayer 04

#RoadtoGlasgow – Ballack: ‘My most important, perhaps even best season'

He was the big leader. He was a driving force, battler and elegant technician rolled into one. And one of the most prolific and strongest in the air midfielders worldwide. Michael Ballack developed into a world star in 2001/02 under the Bayer Cross. We spoke to the former Werkself player, who made 155 appearances (42 goals) for Bayer 04 in his five years at Leverkusen, about the exciting semi-final games against Manchester United in the Champions League, pain thresholds, genuine coaches and the final against Real.
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Michael, following the brilliant 4-2 win against Liverpool you produced a great performance against the next top English club in the first leg at Manchester United. What do you remember about the 2-2 draw at the 'Theatre of dreams'?

Ballack: The atmosphere was breathtaking when he came onto the pitch. I had goose bumps when I saw and heard incredible stage. We were all in the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time and were rank outsiders. Perhaps that's why Manchester United were looking forward to the final. The atmosphere at Old Trafford definitely gave us a special boost. We played a really outstanding game and we should have won there as we had lots of possession, particularly in the second half, and we were able to create loads of chances.

Your goal at 1-1 from a Bernd Schneider cross showed great technique…

Ballack: Yes, that's right, I remember that move well. We pressed, won the ball, and then we switched sides to Bernd (Bernd Schneider, ed.). Of course, he had his head up as usual and didn't just put a cross in but instead put the ball between the last line of defence and the edge of the penalty area. I came in from behind. And, yes, it actually was a difficult ball to play. The cross was whipped in but also somehow bumpy. It was all about hitting the ball right. I didn't have to apply much force but the ball bounced up before I touched it. But then I did connect with it quite well with the inside of my left foot and in the opposite direction of Barthez.

It was an end-to-end encounter. Manchester United took the lead again, Oliver Neuville levelled at 2-2. After the final whistle there was a lot of applause from the stands for you too.

Ballack: I experienced that again and again in England later on: Good performances by opponents are simply appreciated. We didn't know that from Germany back then so that's why it impressed me so much at Old Trafford.

Manchester United was more of a collection of superstars than Liverpool. Barthez, Blanc, Scholes, Keane, Veron, van Nistelrooy, Giggs, Beckham (who was injured) and so on: Who do you think were the key players in "perhaps the best club team in the world," as Klaus Toppmöller said?

Ballack: Paul Scholes was the motivator and strategist in midfield and in that sense almost untypical for an English player. Ryan Giggs was absolutely an exceptional player who always thought two or three steps ahead and simply stood out with his tempo and technique. And, of course, Roy Keane, who came on late in Manchester because he wasn't fully fit. But in the second leg in Leverkusen you could see why Keane shaped that whole era with his strength in challenges, his dynamism and leadership.

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They were turbulent times back then in April and May 2002. Ahead of the 2-2 draw in Manchester, you lost 2-1 at home to Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga and the point gained at Old Trafford was followed by a 1-0 defeat in Nuremberg, which saw Borussia Dortmund go top of the table with one game to play. You were causing a stir in Europe but giving away the league title at the same time. How did you feel about that discrepancy at the time?

Ballack: I just think we didn't have the squad to be able to keep up the high levels right to the end in all three competitions including the DFB Cup. Of course, we wanted to win everything but we weren't able to rotate so much as might have been necessary. And we also have to take into account a long season with lots of games. We didn't place more value on one competition over another. The league title would definitely have been the biggest success for the club and we didn't lose focus on that. And there's no doubt about it: We should have done the job in Nuremberg after the 2-1 defeat against Werder. You shouldn't be able to throw away a five-point lead with three games to play. But we did it.

How did Toppi build you up again ahead of the return match against the Red Devils?

Ballack: That season was not normal for any of us. When you're playing for the league title, in the semi-final of the Champions League and the cup final then motivation is definitely not the problem. After the game against Nürnberg, it was about dealing with the disappointment as soon as possible and putting it behind you to regain the ease and positivity. Toppi really did not have to motivate us ahead of the return game against Manchester United. The question was: How fresh are you? And here mental freshness was definitely more likely than physical.

Jens Nowotny had to go off after ten minutes with a torn cruciate. You had a foot injury after the game in Nuremberg. Oliver Neuville played with a broken toe. And, as at Old Trafford, Man United took the lead at the BayArena. Not the best preconditions for a successful evening…

Ballack: No, That's true. But, given that unique season, we all went beyond the pain threshold. I know that Zoltan Sebescen, who came on for Jens, played with an ankle injury and was laid off a long time at the end of the season. He made a sacrifice for the team and ran up and down the right wing. You don't normally do that in that condition. A lot of us were actually at our limit physically. But they were exceptional and, for many of us, unique games.

You battled heroically in the second half. In the end it was a question of sheer determination, wasn't it?

Ballack: Yes, absolutely. We played much better in the first leg and were the stronger team than in the game at Leverkusen. The second leg was significantly more evenly balanced in my opinion. We definitely had a bit of luck. Manchester United were stronger than us on the night. Of course, they knew they had to do something. And I think they saw us in a completely different way after the 2-2 draw in England and they played accordingly at the BayArena. We got through to the final with the 1-1 draw. But, to be honest: It wasn't dominance in the end but just the question of: can you do it or not?

Klaus Toppmöller said he could have embraced the whole world after the final whistle. What was he like as a coach?

Ballack: Toppi was really positive throughout the whole year and he fitted in with the players and he got the best out of them. Similar to Jürgen Klopp, Toppi is a very genuine and emotional coach. Back then, it was certain in the winter break that I would move on to Bayern Munich in the summer. That wasn't an easy situation for me because some fans were obviously disappointed about that. Toppi backed me up both within the club and outside. That meant there was calm, which was very important to me and the team. Many other coaches might have behaved differently in that situation. It's not always a given that you back a player who is leaving the club and is treated more critically in the press than before. Toppi always clearly said what he believed in even if he had to buck the trend. And players notice if the coach is genuine.

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But you didn't give any reason for criticism with your performances. 17 Bundesliga goals, six in the Champions League, plus three crucial goals in the World Cup play-offs against Ukraine: How important was the 2001/02 season for your career as a football player?

Ballack: Looking back, it was definitely my most important, perhaps even best season if I look at club and country together. The goals in the quarter-final and semi-final of the Champions League, the final against Real Madrid, the important goals in the World Cup play-offs, and then definitely the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea where we also reached the final: It was an exceptional year for me.

You touched on the final in Glasgow. You had to manage without Jens Nowotny and the suspended Ze Roberto, you lost the DFB Cup final against Schalke four days earlier – and nevertheless had another big game against Real…

Ballack: Yes, we were in the final and also fitter than Real Madrid. When I remember the last half hour: They were dead on their feet and we absolutely dominated the game. If we'd have levelled then I'm sure we would have won the game in extra time. Somehow that's funny: We were down to the bare bones in the semi-final second leg against Manchester United and two weeks later we are fully refreshed in the final. You can't always explain everything in football.

Click here for all the articles on #RoadtoGlasgow.

 

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