Gelsenkirchen - Bayer 04 Leverkusen produced the perfect response to being knocked out of the UEFA Champions League during midweek, completing a league double over FC Schalke 04 courtesy of a narrow 1-0 win.
Neither side able to execute game plan
Karim Bellarabi’s 11th goal of the season proved to be the match-winning effort in a fiercely fought encounter as die Werkself kept alive their hopes of qualifying automatically for the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition, whilst dealing a blow to their fellow top-three hopefuls.
Buoyed by a vociferous home crowd, Schalke demonstrated greater purpose in possession during the opening exchanges, but struggled to produce an end product to get the Royal Blues faithful off their feet. There was a distinct battling quality to proceedings, which almost took a turn for the better from the hosts’ perspective when Christian Fuchs’ cross caused mayhem in the Leverkusen box, ultimately falling kindly to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who was denied by a sprawling Bernd Leno.
Having weathered the early storm, the visitors responded in kind with Kyriakos Papadopoulos, playing against his parent club, heading into the arms of Timon Wellenreuther before the quarter-hour mark. The chance instigated a promising period of pressure for Leverkusen that produced a smattering of chances, the best of which came courtesy of Bellarabi, who fired through Matija Nastasic’s legs to sting the palms of Schalke’s young shot-stopper.
Visitors rewarded for greater endeavour
Leverkusen kept themselves on the front foot, though, forcing their hosts to drop deeper as the game wore on. Though the visitors’ final ball often went astray, they deservedly took the lead within seconds of Stefan Kießling squandering a golden opportunity to break the deadlock. Simon Rolfes picked out the run of Bellarabi, who set himself before smashing into the roof of the net from a tight angle with an effort that proved the difference between the sides after a high-tempo first half.
Unbeaten in games in which they’ve taken the lead this season, Leverkusen made two changes at the break as Ömer Toprak and Hakan Calhanoglu entered the fray, with the latter carving out an early effort, finding a pocket of space before striking tamely into the arms of Wellenreuther. Though a lack of precision in the final third was scuppering their most promising moments, Schalke showed no signs of surrendering and almost restored parity when Fuchs’ volley flew inches wide of the far post.
Schalke toil, but run into trouble
With the intensity of the encounter increasing with every passing minute and both sides getting stuck in, aside from a sharp near-post header from Emir Spahic that was well saved by Wellenreuther, goalscoring chances began playing second fiddle to the midfield battle. As a result, the fiery atmosphere inside the Veltins Arena was only stoked further by the fierce challenges being made by both sets of players, which seemed to reinvigorate Schalke heading into the closing stages.
The hosts had little choice but to throw caution to the wind and twice went close to an equaliser as substitute Kevin-Prince Boateng headed over at the end of one of the Royal Blues’ more clinical forays towards goal, before Huntelaar failed to get the better of Leno with a tame effort. With Schalke throwing bodies forward, Bellarabi and Gonzalo Castro both wasted chances to put the game beyond reach, yet it made little difference as Leverkusen held on to move into third for the time being at least.
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