Leverkusen - When Heung Min Son bowed out twelve minutes from the end of Bayer Leverkusen's home game against 1. FC Nürnberg last Saturday, it was to a rapturous ovation from the BayArena crowd, and little wonder. As a parting shot before being replaced by Robbie Kruse, the South Korean No7 had just planted a clinical near-post finish past guest keeper Raphael Schäfer to claim his second goal of the match and wrap up a 3-0 victory over the struggling Franconians. It was a result which came as a timely boon to the Werkself, in more ways than one.
Völler not amused
Just three days earlier at the same venue, the promise of a dream evening on the European stage had evaporated into the stuff of nightmares. Leverkusen, seeking the win against Manchester United that would have guaranteed them a place in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, instead found themselves on the wrong end of a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the English Premier League heavyweights.
It was their first home loss of the season and the heaviest-ever on their own patch in Europe, leaving their Champions League fate partially dependent on the outcome of United's home meeting with Shakhtar Donetsk in the final round of Group A matches next week. Son, who had a couple of unrewarded pots at goal before and after the visitors' opener, made way for Eren Derdiyok with 20 minutes to go and Leverkusen 3-0 down. In short, it had been a dispiriting evening all-round for player and club alike and ahead of the follow-up contest with Nürnberg, sporting director Rudi Völler was moved to observe that “we're a top club - and shouldn't make ourselves out to be smaller than we are.”
Perhaps as much a public reprimand as an internal call to arms, the former FIFA World Cup winner’s message was taken on board for the weekend resumption of Bundesliga duties. After an understandably edgy opening spell, during which Makoto Hasebe came within a whisker of putting the visitors in front, Son drilled Gonzalo Castro's cutback high into the net to break the deadlock in Leverkusen's favour nine minutes before half time. Stefan Kießling doubled the advantage at the start of the second half before Son rang down his personal curtain to make the points safe in the 76th minute, Castro once again providing the assist.
Son's form curve still on the up
The summer signing from Hamburg acknowledged afterwards that the win was “very important after such a heavy loss on Wednesday. But that was just one game out of a whole season and we were determined to bounce back and show our better side against Nürnberg.” As to the upsurge in his own personal fortunes, with the latest brace coming on top of a hat-trick against Hamburger SV in Leverkusen's previous Bundesliga BayArena outing, Son feels “I still need a bit of time to really fit into the team, but the last two home games have been very positive.” His goals, he added, were also a get-well-soon present for Völler, who had been admitted to hospital on the morning of the match with kidney stones: “It's great we were able to win for Rudi.”
The sporting director was expected to be back on the job in good time for the build-up to the next league assignment which, with all respect to Nürnberg, presents a different level of challenge altogether as they travel to the Signal Iduna Park this Saturday to take on Borussia Dortmund. Bayer's fortitude in the wake of that European pasting leaves them still three points clear of Jürgen Klopp's Schwarz-Gelben in second place but the upcoming encounter will be a true test of whether the team have what it takes to mix it with the Bundesliga's best.
Time for an away goal?
Thus far this season, Leverkusen have invariably bounced back victorious from the odd defeat, with the response against Nürnberg, as well as being the most recent, arguably the most impressive too under the circumstances. Their 21-year-old South Korean shooting star, like the rest of the team, has had his mettle tested and risen to the challenge.
They will all be required to do so again in no uncertain manner at Dortmund, where Son has the added incentive of trying to hit the net for his new employers somewhere other than at the BayArena for the first time in the Bundesliga. “I go into every game looking to score. Unfortunately it hasn't worked out yet on the road,” he said after taking his season tally up to six against Nürnberg. “But whether it's at home or away doesn't make much difference to be honest - a goal's always special.” Even he might admit, though, that nabbing the winner at the Signal Iduna Park on Saturday could just qualify for being that little bit extra-special.