Frankfurt - It was a test of nerves, but one which Bayer 04 Leverkusen passed with flying colours at the Commerzbank Arena on Matchday 34. With Borussia Mönchengladbach taking an early lead in their game with 1. FSV Mainz 05 and VfL Wolfsburg leading VfB Stuttgart, die Werkself's grasp on fourth place, and a berth in the UEFA Champions League looked under threat.
Coping with the pressure
With ultimately no change in the outcomes of those games, Leverkusen had to take maximum points to remain on course for fourth spot, and they managed it in a dominant manner, beating Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 to ensure that the final Champions League place is now theirs to lose.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Leverkusen's players and staff were equally confident off the field after their penultimate encounter of the campaign as they had been on it. "It was a strong performance today," said sporting director Rudi Völler. "They team showed they can cope with the pressure and also win the important matches. Now we've got to prove that one more time next week because it's not over yet."
Völler's reminder that Leverkusen are not yet over the line was an important one, because while they rarely looked at risk of letting the points slip this Saturday, Bayer's reward will only be delivered with another demonstration of strength in a week's time. With their rivals not showing any signs of slipping up, a win over SV Werder Bremen on the final day will likely be the minimum required before the celebrations can begin. Should they drop points, both Wolfsburg and Gladbach, who play each other at the Volkswagen Arena, will be waiting in the wings to usurp them.
"Our situation [in the table] hasn't changed at all after this weekend. We're desperate to keep hold of fourth, and for that, we're going to have to win our next game," said goalscorer Emre Can, who has played a key role in Leverkusen's recent revival, playing every minute of the last five games and scoring against Frankfurt, a club he represented at youth level.
There has also been a more relaxed air around the club for several weeks now, according to Völler. "It's like a blockage has been lifted," he said. "The team's now playing with such self-assurance." Gonzalo Castro, who opened the scoring in his 263rd league appearance for the club, went further in outlining the reason behind the transformation. "Sometimes you just need a kick up the backside, and the coach gave us that."
All set for the season's finale
Indeed, the effect that the re-appointment of Sascha Lewandowski as interim coach has had should not be understated. In four games since he replaced Sami Hyypiä, Leverkusen have re-established themselves as the club in pole position to reach the Champions League by winning three and drawing one, maintaining a run of results that says even more about Lewandowski's ability to get the best out of their hugely talented squad.
Spread over his two spells in charge of the first team - the first being between April 2012 and August 2013 when he was Hyypiä's assistant - Bayer are unbeaten in their last 12 league games, winning nine. Evidently, the team responds to Lewandowski's methods, and now just one more win could "make it a good end to the season" according to Castro after a testing start to 2014, and ensure a good basis on which the new head coach Roger Schmidt can build come the beginning of next season.
Leverkusen keeper Bernd Leno features in the Top 5 Saves video from Matchday 33, courtesy of the official Bundesliga YouTube channel: