Deportivo La Coruna could go into the last game of the second group stage feeling relaxed, since the Spanish side were already guaranteed a quarter-final spot after their 2-0 win away at Arsenal the previous matchday. Even defeat to Leverkusen would still see Javier Irureta’s team finish at least second in the group. Things were very different for Bayer 04. If second-placed Arsenal – level on points with the Werkself – were to win away at Juventus, Leverkusen would only be third. A draw in northern Spain would only be enough to progress if Juventus also beat their English opponents. “We’ll always have one eye on Turin so we can react flexibly,” said Bayer 04 coach Toppmöller. The Werkself made the journey to La Coruna full of confidence after a 2-0 victory away at VfB Stuttgart had seen them go top of the Bundesliga table on Matchday 27. While out for a walk along the promenade on the eve of the game, Toppmöller happened to come across his Spanish counterpart Irureta. “I spoke to him, exchanged a few words. He was incredibly nice and friendly,” Toppi later recalled of the conversation.
It certainly wasn’t out of friendliness to Toppmöller that Irureta opted not to field key players like Juan Carlos Valeron, Fran and Diego Tristan at the Riazor. He could afford to rotate his side since they were already through to the next stage. Depor had also just won the Copa del Rey after a 2-1 victory against Real Madrid but allowed the Bundesliga leaders to take control. The Werkself dominated the game from the start and quickly created good chances for Michael Ballack, Bernd Schneider and Yildiray Bastürk, who was brilliantly played in by Thomas Brdaric on 27 minutes but couldn’t beat goalkeeper Nuno Espirito Santo from a few yards. Brdaric was surprisingly chosen as the sole striker but soon set up Ballack’s header for the opening goal and also struck the corner of the goal with a shot from distance just before half-time. Bayer 04 could’ve held a greater lead after 45 minutes. Schneider quickly doubled the advantage after the break from a Ze Roberto corner. Even Tristan’s goal for the hosts, deflected off Diego Placente, didn’t knock the Werkself with a quarter of an hour remaining. A pin-point cross from Ballack was then headed in by substitute Oliver Neuville four minutes from time to earn a thoroughly deserved 3-1 win.
The way the opening goal was created was exemplary of Leverkusen’s excellent combination football that night. After Bastürk played him the ball, Ze Roberto showed great technique to get through and charge up the pitch before laying the ball left to Brdaric, whose cross Ballack headed off the underside of the crossbar from six yards. Technique, speed and determined finishing was the way the Werkself went about many of their attacks. Even Deportivo fans showed appreciation for the Leverkusen performance with applause after the final whistle.
Toppmöller’s tactical masterstroke of only playing one striker turned out to be fully justified because Brdaric fulfilled the role perfectly. He didn‘t just set up Ballack’s opening goal but was involved in almost every dangerous Bayer 04 attack until his substitution in the 64th minute. He came close to scoring a great goal if not for hitting the frame of the goal from almost 30 yards, won the corner that led to 2-0 and ran his socks off. “Thommy was just the right man today with his speed and strength on the counter,” Toppmöller said.
At the late-night banquet at the Melia Maria hotel, general manager Reiner Calmund was fulsome in his praise of the team: “What you’ve done here is sensational. I think this triumph is greater than when we got to the quarter-finals in 1998 because the opponents we’ve left behind are of a far different calibre than back then.” He felt that progress to the last eight of the Champions League was the “greatest success since we won the UEFA Cup in 1988”. Toppmöller also emphasised the impressive performance of Brdaric: “We need to stop talk of regular players on one side and back-up players on the other. This success in La Coruna will give our team spirit yet another boost. What’s now to come in the Champions League is an exhibition.” And the highly praised Brdaric added: “Toppi told me after final training that I’ve got his trust. And I think I justified it.”
The German press were also thoroughly positive about the Werkself’s efforts in Spain. kicker wrote: “A mature, clear performance by Bayer, who thoroughly deserve to top the second group stage. That was international class.”
The Rheinische Post said: “The dance goes on, only the partner changes for the next ball. The leap into the Champions League quarter-finals, being among the illustrious circle of the continent’s eight best teams, isn’t just a huge image boost and yet more income for Bayer Leverkusen’s football team, but also the greatest success in the club’s history.”
The Kölnische Rundschau stated: “Wins like the last one against Spain’s runners-up show this Bayer team that they now have the maturity needed for great success.”
Deportivo: Nuno – Hector (Tristan 66'), Cesar, Naybet, Capdevila – Mauro Silva, Duscher (Valeron 60'), Djalminha - Pandiani (Sergio 60'), Makaay, Amavisca
Bayer 04: Butt – Sebescen (Zivkovic 90'), Lucio, Nowotny, Placente – Schneider, Ramelow, Ballack, Ze Roberto, Bastürk (Vranjes 87') – Brdaric (Neuville 64')
Goals: 0-1 Ballack (34'), 0-2 Schneider (53'), 1-2 Tristan (75'), 1-3 Neuville (86')
Yellow cards: Capdevila – Nowotny, Brdaric
Shots: 11-16; on target: 4-7
Referee: Valentin Ivanov (Russia)
Instead of the 2,500 fans who had previously gone to London, there were only 200 Werkself supporters who made the trip to Spain. Bayer 04 travel marshal Matthias Grimm from BaySports Travel said the reasons were that “La Coruna is tough to get to. The trip isn’t cheap. We just had London and also have the DFB Cup final in Berlin to come.” Bayer 04 had invited the legends team along with them for additional support, and they were given a special mission by Calmund at the banquet that they “eat and drink what the players deserved to have”, because they unfortunately couldn’t enjoy the win, with a Bundesliga game to come again in three days. Gerd Kentschke, Walter Posner, Heiko Scholz and the rest gladly complied…
Since Juventus beat Arsenal 1-0 in the other game, Leverkusen’s 3-1 win in Spain saw them move up to first place in the group on the final day and progress to the quarter-finals alongside Deportivo. The draw two days later in Nyon saw the Werkself handed another tie with English opposition in Liverpool. The first leg at Anfield was scheduled for 3 April.
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