Köln let down the tyres on Xabi Alonso’s Leverkusen Lamborghini | Andy Brassell

It was always going to end at some point. They just didn’t want it to be here. Leverkusen’s phenomenal unbeaten run was stopped at 14 games, at the start of the week which will contain their Europa League semi-final first leg date with destiny against Roma.

“It just wasn’t a good performance,” said the sporting director, Simon Rolfes, seeking to de-dramatise the disappointment. “It was down to us that we lost this game. No one else.” The midfielder Robert Andrich so often the barometer of mood in good times and bad, who always seems to find the right words, was a touch more frank. “It doesn’t get much more difficult to take than when a run like this ends in the derby against Köln,” he lamented. “And in the BayArena.”

It hurt. Xabi Alonso already knew that his team weren’t getting into the Champions League via the Bundesliga’s top four – hold that thought when it comes to the Europa League, with this magnetic coach looking like he might be the one to finally jettison that old ‘Neverkusen’ tag. Their dynamic has been so overwhelmingly positive that this was beyond deflating, though, at just the wrong time. Andrich admitted he would “go to bed angry”.

The frustration was compounded by the manner in which the hosts had briefly clawed themselves to parity in the first half. It was so Alonso-era Leverkusen in manner that it was almost pastiche. Andrich won the ball back deep in the right-back position and then it moved quickly, right to left; Jérémie Frimpong to Amine Adli to Mitchel Bakker, down the left channel to Moussa Diaby who held it up for a second, before picking out the onrushing Adli to fire confidently home from the edge of the area.

Amine Adli fires home to complete a sweeping team move for Leverkusen’s equaliser.
Amine Adli fires home to complete a sweeping team move for Leverkusen’s equaliser. Photograph: Thilo Schmülgen/Reuters

It took 16 seconds from start to finish, and this is what Alonso’s team do. This is what they have done so regularly in turning second-bottom into the top six and possible European glory, ever since they set the template against Köln in their first meeting back in November. Yet it turned out to be an all too fleeting glimpse of who they really are, at the moment when they least expected it. Eight minutes after Adli’s emphatic finish to that electrifying move they were behind again – this time, it turned out, definitively, as Davie Selke lashed home a Jan Thielmann cross at the near post, the visitors’ road to joy unconfined.

Köln’s season had started with high hopes, with a Europa Conference League place to enjoy. There have been myriad bumps in the road since – the abrupt exit of Anthony Modeste to Dortmund, a major outbreak of crowd trouble on their trip to Nice, a heroic but exhausting eventual exit from Europe in the return against the same opposition, and then flatlining league form – but they have got where they needed to be. This win, combined with losses for Stuttgart and Bochum, have mathematically confirmed Köln’s safety. That they could celebrate it here, against local rivals where large sections of their support have genuine cultural disdain for them, and that they could celebrate the departing club legends Jonas Hector and Timo Horn in front of their massed 7,500-strong travelling support, meant everything.

“If the BayArena hadn’t closed at some point,” wrote Martin Zenge in Express, Cologne’s major newspaper, “the Köln fans would probably still be celebrating. Whether it’s the ‘DerbySieger’ chant on a continuous loop, the chants for [Hector and Horn] or the team dancing in front of the packed guest block, Die Geißböcke had last experienced a party like this when they qualified for the Conference League.” When the team bus arrived back at Geißbockheim, the club’s training centre, just before 1am, a hardy band of fans greeted them with chants and pyro. It was going to be a good weekend, as decreed by Steffen Baumgart. The coach, who fully joined in the celebrations in front of the away end, cancelled Saturday’s training session as a thank you to his players. “After [collectively running] 129km, it was granted to the lads,” cheered the club’s Twitter account.

The Köln head coach, Steffen Baumgart, celebrates with the away fans.
The Köln head coach, Steffen Baumgart, celebrates with the away fans. Photograph: Christof Köpsel/Getty Images

It was a particularly great night for Selke, who had opened the scoring with a towering header and looked every inch the centre-forward that he has often promised to be, rather than the one that he often has been. He clashed with Andrich, who accused Selke of being overly “theatrical”, which underlined how much he had got under Leverkusen’s skin. The ultimate compliment, really.

This, then, will be the challenge for the impressive Alonso, as if José Mourinho wasn’t enough of one already. We know he can make his team cruise with style and grace, but can he quickly restart the car now it has stalled?

Talking points

Bayern faced one of their toughest remaining fixtures on paper and the 2-1 win at Werder Bremen left a genuine sense of satisfaction that hasn’t been there for a while. For the second successive week Serge Gnabry – whose future has been the subject of intense speculation as part of the anticipated summer clearout – opened the scoring well into the second half, with Leroy Sané’s goal proving the winner after a Niklas Schmidt long-range piledriver provoked a nervy ending. “For the last three games there’s no more ego,” said Thomas Tuchel, floating a novel concept for the champions. “It’s just a matter of getting it over the finish line.”

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Borussia Dortmund, then, went into the late Sunday game against an in-form Wolfsburg under genuine pressure with a four-point gap to close down. They responded emphatically, with a 6-0 win that could easily have been bigger without Koen Casteels’ saves. The outstanding Karim Adeyemi and Jude Bellingham both scored twice, although a crestfallen Adeyemi spurned the chance of a hat-trick in lifting a penalty Bellingham had won over the bar. “Today was a top performance,” enthused Edin Terzić, “from start to finish.”

Karim Adeyemi and Jude Bellingham
Karim Adeyemi and Jude Bellingham both excelled in Dortmund’s 6-0 win over Wolfsburg. Photograph: Lars Baron/Getty Images

What a week it’s been for Leipzig. After tearing to a 5-1 win at Freiburg in the DfB Pokal in midweek to book a return trip to Berlin to defend their title, Kevin Kampl’s solo goal in the last 20 minutes snared another win at the same opposition to leapfrog them into fourth place. Even if Marco Höler missed a great chance to equalise for the hosts near the end this was every bit as comprehensive in its way, with Marco Rose’s team seemingly hitting one of their hot streaks at the perfect moment. “Nothing is lost yet,” reasoned the Freiburg goalkeeper Mark Flekken, underlining their incredible campaign so far. “We still have every chance.”

Quick Guide

Bundesliga results


Friday: Leverkusen 1-2 Köln, Mainz 2-3 Schalke. Sat: Augsburg 1-0 Union, Freiburg 0-1 Leipzig, Gladbach 2-0 Bochum, Hertha 2-1 Stuttgart, Hoffenheim 3-1 Eintracht, Werder Bremen 1-2 Bayern. Sun: Dortmund 6-0 Wolfsburg.

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At the moment, though, it is Schalke who continually astound. A Marius Bülter penalty in the 11th minute of stoppage time gave them a thrilling 3-2 win at Mainz to lift them out of the bottom three entirely, with Bochum’s loss at Borussia Mönchengladbach and Hertha’s 2-1 win over Stuttgart keeping the relegation battle bubbling. Even if trips to Bayern and Leipzig in their final three remaining games mean any joy must be qualified, Schalke are a must-watch. “Dear football god, protect this Schalke!” wrote Michael Makus in Bild. “A Bundesliga without this crazy Schalke is like a coronation without a crown.”


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