It was Freiburg’s first game since their historic Europa League draw which secured them a tie against record Italian champions Juventus. SCF welcomed another team who frequently compete on the international stage in Bayer Leverkusen to the Europa-Park Stadion. A mutual respect between both sides was evident on this Sunday afternoon.
Bayer Leverkusen, who, behind RB Leipzig, have scored the second-most goals on the counter in the league this season (six), sat deep in the initial stages, looking for any opportunity to break. Given that Moussa Diaby, who had recently been out due to an adductor injury, was back in the starting line-up for the first time in a while, it made sense that they employed such tactics early on.
Their hard-fought Europa League play-off second leg against AS Monaco on Thursday, which went all the way to penalties before Bayer eventually prevailed, didn’t initially appear to have taken its toll on Xabi Alonso’s side. In the 11th minute, the rapid Diaby charged into Freiburg’s penalty area, with his square pass fortunately coming off Matthias Ginter’s leg and into the arms of Mark Flekken.
Grifo misses narrowly, Doan departs due to injury
One enforced change had to be made to the side that beat VfL Bochum 2-0 last week, as Christian Gunter was ruled out of the game due to suspension, ending his 153-match run of starting every Freiburg competitive fixture. Lukas Kübler took the captain’s spot on the left of a back four, with Kiliann Sildillia starting at right-back.
It took a while for Freiburg to do anything in the attacking phase. Vincenzo Grifo played a one-two with Michael Gregoritsch deep into Leverkusen’s half and then had a shot at Lukas Hradecky’s goal, missing the target by a matter of inches (17’).
Shortly afterwards, the home side had to make their first substitution. Roland Sallai was brought on in place of Ritsu Doan, who had picked up a knock. However, it didn’t take long before the host’s fortunes changed.
“We wanted to win the tactical battle in the first half, but we weren’t fully able to do that. Leverkusen had two or three good chances, which we defended well. Then, we took the lead,” commented head coach Christian Streich after the game.
Every opponent’s worst nightmare unfolded in the 26th minute when Vincenzo Grifo placed the ball down 26 metres from goal, preparing to take a free kick. The Italy international took this opportunity to prove he is a master of his trade, as his precise effort went in off the inside of the right post, giving Freiburg the lead.
Four big chances for Leverkusen before the break
The visitors threatened an equaliser in the closing stages of the first half, squandering four decent chances to do so. Lukas Kübler was called into action as he got in the way of a cross from the left flank which was heading towards a set-to-shoot Diaby (38’), and a minute later, Mark Flekken had to stop Kemir Demirbay’s header from levelling the scores.
Sixty seconds later, Jeremie Frimpong’s flying header from close range flew over an empty net, and their biggest chance of the four came as a one-on-one opportunity against Mark Flekken for Moussa Diaby, with the keeper making himself big to keep his side’s lead intact going into the break (45’+1).
It was Leverkusen head coach Xabi Alonso’s first meeting with SC Freiburg, a stark contrast to Freiburg’s stadium announcer Claus Köhn, who attended his 600th league match in the role. Thanks for everything, Claus!
Alonso subs on Wirtz and then Schick
SCF legend Köhn along with the 34,000 others in attendance at the Europa-Park Stadion could see just how much quality was in Leverkusen’s squad this season. First, Florian Wirtz was brought on at half-time for Adam Hlozek, and then Patrik Schick replaced the lively Moussa Diaby (66’). The Czech striker had only been on the field for one minute when Mitchel Bakker played a brilliant pass with the outside of his left foot towards the far post, picking out Serdar Azmoun who volleyed home spectacularly for 1-1.
Leverkusen’s equaliser was to signal the start of an exciting end to the match between these two evenly-matched teams. SCF had a huge chance to retake the lead in the 71st minute: Matthias Ginter’s header from a Vincenzo Grifo free kick was saved by Hradecky, then Lucas Höler’s header from close range only found the post, and finally, Lukas Kübler’s headed effort also missed the goal. After all that, it remained 1-1.
“It was an even second half,” said Streich after the full-time whistle. “We were also quite lucky at the end. I’m very satisfied, because we played against a very strong side.”
Both teams had chances as the final whistle neared. Patrik Schick missed the best of them in added time, when his attempt following a Kerim Demirbay cross struck the bar (90’+1). The game finished 1-1, leaving SCF in fifth place on 41 points after 22 matches, with their next fixture away to Borussia Mönchengladbach on Saturday, 4th March (15:30 CET).
Photos: Achim Keller