Peter Bosz had to manage without his captain in the final game of the first half of the season. Lars Bender was sidelined with slight muscular problems and he was replaced at right-back by Panagiotis Retsos. It was the first start for the Greek in the Bundesliga since May 2018. On the other side of the back four, Wendell was preferred to Daley Sinkgraven. The third and final change compared with the defeat against Hertha Berlin: Kerem Demirbay started in place of Lucas Alario. Karim Bellarabi returned to the squad after recovering from illness – as did Joel Pohjanpalo after an injury. Julian Baumgartlinger did not make the squad as the Austrian was ruled out due to illness. Peter Bosz fielded the youngest Leverkusen starting line-up in the current Bundesliga campaign.
The travelling Werkself fans provided excellent support and they certainly made themselves heard in the away end. The Werkself made a bright start and there was cause to celebrate early on – however only briefly: Kevin Volland put the ball in the back of the Mainz net but was then ruled offside (9').
Bayer 04 were on top in the opening stages but the hosts posed the greater threat as they played on the counter-attack and were thus able to produce two good goalscoring opportunities: Robin Quaison put an effort just wide of the left post (13'), Adam Szalai got on the end of a deflected Aaron cross but he put his shot out over the bar from six yards (17').
Once again it was a question of patience and concentration for Bayer 04. The young Werkself team had 70% possession in the opening 30 minutes and were effective up to the penalty area but were unable to penetrate the Mainz defence as they often took the wrong option. Shortly after that, the travelling Werkself fans were reminded of events at Hertha Berlin a week ago. Mainz were also unlucky with an offside decision. A goal from Szalai was chalked off for an offside decision against Quaison (32').
The Werkself then tried a different approach by changing positions in attacking midfield. Kai Havertz, who started on the right flank, moved into the middle, Moussa Diaby swapped wings, Nadiem Amiri moved out to the left – and was then rotated back. That did not prove to be a success and instead it was Mainz who had the chances: A header from Quaison flew just wide of the target (43'), Sven Bender saved the day with a great sliding tackle to deny Szalai (45’), and a shot from Jean-Paul Boetius missed the target (45+ 1'). It was clear after the first half that there was certainly room for improvement for the Werkself.
Peter Bosz must also have been aware of that and the Werkself coach made an attacking change bringing on Bellarabi in place of Retsos. That also marked a change in the formation: Bayer 04 now played 3-4-2-1 and immediately posed the greater threat up front. Amiri played an excellent ball to Demirbay but his shot was deflected away (49'), and Diaby had a similar experience with a swift counter-attack soon afterwards (52'). It was not only the rain in Mainz that was coming down stronger but the Werkself also made their presence felt. Bayer 04 were more positive in challenges and more alert than in the first half with the result that there was greater pressure on the Mainz goal. Long-range efforts from Havertz (53') and Demirbay (60') went over the bar.
Leverkusen certainly looked like scoring in the rain – and it appeared to have happened. Amiri won the ball from Moussa Niakhaté, raced down the left touchline and crossed into the centre where Volland only had to stick out his foot. Then VAR was involved and the referee Ittrich looked at the incident on the screen and then ruled the goal out. In the build-up, Niakhaté hit the ball from close range against the hand of Amiri. Of course, no intentional handball but unfortunately against the rules this season. For Bayer 04 and Amiri it was the second time there was bad luck in a similar situation after the would-be winner against Werder Bremen.
The Werkself reacted furiously but Volland failed to beat Robin Zentner (69') – and then Bayer 04 were suddenly down to ten men: Wendell, who had just been shown a yellow card, fouled Öztunali in a Mainz counter-attack. Ittrich showed no compromise as he produce a second yellow card to dismiss the Bayer 04 defender (72'). Peter Bosz was forced to make a change and he had to sacrifice Diaby in favour of Dragovic.
Mainz, who were anonymous in the second half of that point, were suddenly in pole position and they pressed with the extra man. Lukas Hradecky pulled off a brilliant save with his foot to deny Jean-Philippe Mateta (74,) and a curler from Kunde flew just wide of the target (77,).
In spite of being a man down, Peter Bosz had not written off the chances of winning and he brought on Alario in place of Demirbay. A brave decision that paved the way for a courageous end to the game for the Werkself: Alario went close with his first touch of the ball (82'), Amiri put an effort just wide of the top corner (84'). As Mainz were also trying to win the game it turned into an end-to-end encounter with Hradecky pulling off another brilliant save to keep out Mateta as he broke through (85'). Shortly after that, the Finnish keeper had to thank Dragovic who threw himself in front of a shot from Öztunali (88'). At the other end, Volland appeared to have scored again but his effort was ruled out this time as the provider Alario was penalised for being offside (90').
But that was not the end of the drama the climax was reached in added time: Zentner again denied Volland and, at the other end, Mateta missed a chance when he was unmarked (90+ 1'). It was impressive the way the Werkself continued to press forward despite being a man down – and Bayer 04 were rewarded for their irrepressible desire. Charles Aránguiz won the ball in midfield and Havertz brilliantly put through Volland. The striker did not beat Zentner at the first attempt but his determination saw him hit the ball against the far post. Alario was in the right spot and the striker made no mistake as he forced the ball over the line to net the winner (90+3'). What a finale!
The incredible final minutes fitted in perfectly with the end of an eventful year for Bayer 04 as they go into the winter break in sixth position. The Werkself return on 3 January to start preparing for the second half of the season. After a training camp in La Manga in Spain, Bayer 04 return to action on 19 January with an away game at Paderborn.
Mainz 05: Zentner - Baku, Niakhaté, Hack, Aaron - Fernandes, Kunde - Öztunali, Boetius, Quaison (Onisiwo 87') - Szalai (Mateta 66')
Bayer 04: Hradecky – Retsos (Bellarabi 46'), Tah, S. Bender, Wendell – Demirbay (Alario 81'), Aránguiz – Havertz, Amiri, Diaby (Dragovic 74') - Volland
Goals: 0-1 Alario (90+3')
Referee: Patrick Ittrich (Hamburg)
Sent off: Wendell (72', two yellow cards)
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