“I just let it all out,” said Calhanoglu of the exuberant celebrations that followed his goal to earn Bayer 04 Leverkusen a 1-0 home victory over Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Round of 16 UEFA Champions League meeting. Keeper Leno, who pulled off two terrific saves with the game against last season's beaten finalists hanging in the balance, said for his part that, “We delivered the right response to some poor recent games, and the accompanying criticism.”
'Fantastic job' all round
Bayer's first knockout phase victory in 13 years leaves them in a solid position for the return leg in the Spanish capital on 17 March. It was also undoubtedly a step up from the performances in any of their last three outings at this stage of the tournament. In 2005, they lost 3-1, home and away, to Liverpool FC, while in 2012 they were crushed 10-2 on aggregate by FC Barcelona. Last time out, Paris Saint-German FC won 4-0 at the BayArena and 2-1 at home. “Beating such a top-class team's really quite something,” sporting director Rudi Völler confirmed. “It was a very focused performance right from the word go. Everyone did a fantastic job.”
Apart from anything else, Leverkusen were the only one of the Bundesliga's four representatives who managed to win their first leg. Borussia Dortmund lost 2-1 to Juventus on a frustrating evening in Turin but Marco Reus's precious away goal guarantees a thrilling return at the Signal Iduna Park on 18 March. “We're glad we could keep it tight and we're not heading home unhappy,” head coach Jürgen Klopp said after the contest, even while reflecting on the two soft goals his side had gifted the Italian record champions. A win by either 1-0 or two clear goals on home turf will now see them through to the last eight.
Heldt proud of Schalke effort
Dortmund are certainly in a stronger position than Ruhr district arch-rivals FC Schalke 04, who will require a minor football miracle to overturn a 2-0 first leg loss to Real Madrid. That said, sporting director Horst Heldt was quick to relativize the defeat, noting that at least, “We can leave the pitch with our heads held high. We've nothing to be ashamed of.”
Last season, Schalke were obliterated by Real at the same stage and the same venue, los blancos running out 6-1 winners en route to becoming champions of Europe for the tenth time. In the run-up to this meeting, concerns of a possible repeat showing largely outweighed the hopes of pulling off a surprise against Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. Now, on the back of a spirited performance, the Royal Blues will head into the return at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu determined to savour the occasion, with club chairman Clemens Tönnies even upbeat enough to suggest that “the underdog always has a fighting chance.”
Guardiola: 'We will win'
FC Bayern München are well enough placed at the midway point of their own tie with FC Shakhtar Donetsk, although you would hardly guess it from the management's response to the 0-0 away draw in the first leg. The current conflict in eastern Ukraine led to the contest being switched to Lviv, on the other side of the country, itself doubtless a factor in what Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge described as “a peculiar game. That wasn't the outcome we were looking for.” Director of Sport Matthias Sammer agreed, describing the goalless draw as “dangerous, it looks a better result than it really is.”
The German record champions are looking to go a long way again in Europe's top club competition but they will have to be on their guard in the return leg against Donetsk, with their well-stocked Brazilian contingent. “There's always the risk of conceding a silly goal - and then you're chasing the game,” Rummenigge warned. Head coach Pep Guardiola meanwhile preferred to focus on the positives, pointing out that, “We were playing a man down for much of the game after Xabi Alonso was sent off, that didn't make it any easier.” As for the second leg, the Catalan tactician summarised, “We have to win it now, and we will.”