At the end of 120 minutes of emotional ups and downs and physical high tension, the pros from Bayer Leverkusen were where they certainly didn't want to be. It was a running gag in the area: Just don't get into the penalty shootout.
But that's how it happened, after the 3-2 after extra time at AS Monaco, who in turn had won 3-2 in Leverkusen. "We stood there in a circle and were all screwed," said midfielder Robert Andrich: "But we've all joined forces again. The coach announced the shooters. And everyone said straight away: Okay, we'll shoot."
Bayer had missed seven of the last eight penalties in all competitions, by four different shooters. But that evening, full of adrenaline and with heavy legs, it turned completely. The curse has been lifted. At the best possible moment, on penalties in a Europa League knockout game. The team is now in the round of 16.
The next opponent is an old acquaintance. The Rhinelanders meet Ferencvaros Budapest on March 9th and 16th. The Hungarian record champions were group opponents in this competition last season. Bayer won the home game 2-1, Ferencvaros the second leg 1-0.
No Bayer miss
"Well, I didn't expect all five of us to go in," admitted national player Florian Wirtz, who was no longer on the pitch when the shoot-out took place, "because from the end of regular time after every sprint I've had cramps in both calves and both thighs had". In fact, all five of Leverkusen's scored from the spot, and one miss by Monaco's Eliot Matazo was enough to qualify for the round of 16.
"Penalties haven't been good lately. Today they were great," said coach Xabi Alonso, who said he wasn't worried: "I wasn't nervous, I had faith. They all stayed cool. But that was it not only with the penalties, but also the whole game beforehand."
Praise from Rolfes
He celebrated the biggest victory of his young coaching career rather cautiously. "We didn't have time to celebrate," said Alonso: "My family was here, we shared this beautiful moment, but now I'm focused on work again." Alonso is still training with his team in the Principality on Friday, and the plane to Basel only leaves on Saturday afternoon. The next league game at SC Freiburg is on Sunday.
Sports director Simon Rolfes gave the coach the biggest share in this success. "Xabi received a lot of criticism after the weekend because he made so many changes," said Rolfes, referring to the 2-3 draw against Mainz in the league after six changes in personnel: "But if he hadn't done that, we wouldn't have progressed here . That's why it was a win for him."
Alonso didn't want that praise. "It's a difference to experience such games as a player and as a coach," said the 41-year-old, but: "Of course I enjoyed the moment with my players. I was happy for them that they created this moment. Of course I am I'm proud and we can enjoy this moment too. But there's still a long way to go."