After a disappointing first half of the Bundesliga season, Bayer 04 Leverkusen are determined to turn things around in the Rückrunde, to ensure another top-four finish and a place in the UEFA Champions League.
Leverkusen will see 2017 as a chance to make a fresh start. After a largely forgettable first half of the campaign – which saw them pick up just six wins in 16 outings – Roger Schmidt's side kicked off the new calendar year in style, rounding out the Hinrunde with a 3-1 win over high-flying Hertha Berlin.
Watch: Hakan Calhanoglu on his goal celebration against Hertha:
"We're happy to have won today," the Turkey international said after the final whistle. "It wasn't easy to get into the game after such a long preparation period, but it was really important to put in a good home performance."
Calhanoglu's goals came towards the end of each half, after his international team-mate Ömer Toprak had given hosts Leverkusen an early lead. The penalty he converted on 36 minutes had particular significance, as it ended a run of five missed penalties for Bayer this season, in the Bundesliga and the UEFA Champions League.
"We knew we'd missed a lot of penalties, and that the fans were expecting a goal," Calhanoglu admitted. "I think the whole debate would have come up again if I'd missed, but I know that I can take penalties, and I was extremely focused. We've practised them a lot, so hopefully there won't be any issues from now on."
Hertha did pull a goal back before half-time, through Valentin Stocker, but Calhanoglu had the final word, firing in an acrobatic volley to seal all three points for Leverkusen. It was only their fourth win in nine outings at the BayArena this season, and the fourth time this term they have managed to score at least three goals in the Bundesliga. Their elegant No. 10 is now hoping for more of the same in the coming weeks.
"We want to score a lot of goals in the Rückrunde, and do better than we did in the Hinrunde. In our league games, we always try to replicate what we do on the training pitch."
The win over Hertha moved Leverkusen up to eighth place in the table, five points off the European places. Unsurprisingly, though, for a club who have finished either third or fourth in the last four seasons, Bayer have lofty ambitions heading into the second half of the campaign.
"We want to reach the Champions League," Calhanoglu insists. "That's our goal. But to reach it, we have to stay calm and take our games one at a time."
Schmidt will certainly be boosted by his side's Matchday 17 performance, as well as the return of midfielder Karim Bellarabi. The 26-year-old German made just his third Bundesliga appearance of the season against Hertha, after several months out with a groin injury, and linked up brilliantly with Julian Brandt and Calhanoglu – who is delighted to have him back.
"I'm very happy for him," said Calhanoglu. "It's been a long, hard road to recovery, and this comeback was a big step. As a team, all we can do is be there to support him and help him."
A long, hard road is also what Leverkusen can expect in the coming months, as they bid to reach the Champions League for the fifth successive year. With Bellarabi back in business and Calhanoglu on song, they could have what it takes – but the latter, now his side's top scorer with six Bundesliga goals, says they need to start by focusing on the fundamentals.
"Before we look at the table, we need to look at ourselves, and really start playing the game that characterises Bayer 04 Leverkusen. The rest will take care of itself."
Leverkusen will be at home for their next two league outings, against struggling Borussia Mönchengladbach and fellow European hopefuls Eintracht Frankfurt. A couple more wins at the BayArena, and fourth place suddenly won't look so far off after all.