A European Cup semi final in 2002 where United went out on away goals to Bayer Leverkusen, a side that conformed to all the German stereotypes of bland strong efficiency, is still the most heartbreaking and gut wrenching night of my time watching United. I bear no ill to either Leverkusen or their fans, United should’ve beaten them but didn’t due some resolute defending by the Germans and some rank bad luck. When the draw for this seasons group stage was made and with the memory of 2002 coming back like some long forgotten nightmare, I was wary of Leverkusen. I was wrong to be.
Another example of saturation point for European football
Leverkusen were garbage, they were nearly as bad as the Schalke 04 side that came to Old Trafford in April 2011. United dominated possession from the off and when Wayne Rooney scored his 199th goal for United on 21 minutes it was well deserved for both player and team. When Rooney wasted a great chance on 52 minutes, Leverkusen went straight up the pitch and equalised with a Simon Rofles shot from 20 yards which deflected in off Michael Carrick past a gobsmacked David De Gea. There was a sense of Déjà vu from 2002 with that equaliser. Any worry of that was dispelled five minutes later when Robin Van Persie put United back in front with a brilliant volley from an Antonio Valencia cross going past Bernd Leno on his near post into the Stretford End net. Ten minutes later, David De Gea saved brilliantly from Simon Rofles to launch a counter attack in which Wayne Rooney scored his 200th goal for United, Leverkusen keeper Bernd Leno again beaten on his near post. On 79 minutes, Antonio Valencia scored a typical goal, hammering it past Bernd Leno who yet again was beaten on his near post. This wasn’t a good night for Leno, for a goalkeeper to beaten at all on his near post once can be unlucky but it is always a mistake. For a keeper to be beaten three times on his near post in the same match is sacrilegious. After a near imperious twelve months, David De Gea proved that he can still get caught flapping when he came out wildly for an Emre Can corner and finding himself stranded four yards off his line nowhere near the ball. By the time he could get back into position, Stefan Reinartz had already headed against the bar before Ömer Toprak smashed in the rebound past a bamboozled United keeper. If De Gea has to make a mistake like that, then being 4-1 with three minutes to go in a European match is a near perfect time to make it.
As per usual for a group stage European match, the atmosphere was a bit flat. There must’ve been 5-7,000 empty seats in the ground even if the official attendance was 74,000. Leverkusen fans were more noisy on the walk down Warwick Road than they were in the ground. On the walk to the ground, flanked by the riot squad and clad in what could most nicely be described as retro fashion, Leverkusen fans were in quite a boisterous mood. For all their front though, this was nothing compared to the visit of Ajax eighteen months ago, for sure. I was slightly taken aback by them singing ‘You Only Sing When You’re Winning’ before the match kicked off, they obviously had advance knowledge of just how rubbish their side was going to be. They were right.