Leverkusen - With Bayer 04 Leverkusen and FC Schalke 04 stretching every last sinew in the UEFA Champions League in midweek, Saturday's late game at the BayArena was always going to be something of a battle of attrition.
In the end, it took a piece of deadball magic to settle the contest, with Hakan Calhanoglu the man to hand Roberto Di Matteo his first defeat as Knappen head coach.
"It was a difficult game for us against a very strong home side that play a good pressing game," admitted Schalke's Italian strategist after the game. "In terms of our organisation, we didn't allow them too many chances, but then the winning goal came from a free kick. We could have taken more chances as an attacking unit. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to do that."
Indeed, the Royal Blues registered just four shots on Bernd Leno's goal compared to Leverkusen's 24 at the other end. Di Matteo's men settled well enough, but fatigue appeared to set in on the back of Wednesday's 4-3 win over Sporting Clube de Portugal and, despite ending the contest a man to the good following Tin Jedvaj's 85th-minute red card, a second wind didn't materialise.
'Heading in the right direction'
"After falling behind, we didn't see enough of the ball or create enough chances," explained Schalke captain Benedikt Höwedes. "We have quality players, so we need to be doing more with the ball. Leverkusen attacked well and instead of countering, we opted to play the long ball a bit too often. That said, I think we played well and are heading in the right direction."
Leverkusen, for their part, appear to be back on track after putting an end to a run of three league draws with victory at the BayArena. The Werkself thus closed the gap on Bundesliga frontrunners FC Bayern München to four points ahead of the Bavarians' trip to Borussia Mönchengladbach, whilst simultaneously extending their lead over perennial top-four adversaries Schalke and Borussia Dortmund to five and nine respectively.
'It won't happen overnight'
"I'm delighted with the result," enthused Leverkusen head coach Roger Schmidt. "The team played well from the first minute. We were well organised, but were caught out a few times in the first half. We tried to break quickly once we won the ball back, which wasn't always easy for our defenders. After going in front we played well and prevented Schalke from creating any good chances. We kept our cool right to the end, even when we had ten men."
A more detailed look at the league ladder nevertheless shows how both sides still have much room for improvement. The 12th-placed Royal Blues have scored as many times as they've conceded (13), while fourth-in-the-table Leverkusen have shipped more goals (14) than any other side in the top-half of the standings. "The players are keen to learn and we're on the right path," Di Matteo affirmed, acutely aware the race for positions two through four is shaping up to be one of the most open yet. "I always said it won't happen overnight."
See how Leverkusen celebrated Saturday's win over Schalke on the Bundesliga's official YouTube channel: