In this season’s edition of the Champions League, 15 of the richest 16 teams made it through the group stages. With the wealthy elite often tussling in the knockout rounds of the competition, it’s rare that an upstart makes a dash for the grand prize.
That is why, 15 years later, Bayer Leverkusen’s all-out assault on this typically exclusive affair is still one of the finest stories in the Champions League era. After progressing through the qualifying rounds, Die Werkself became the first club to reach a final despite having never collected a domestic title.
Leverkusen vaulted beyond the first group stage behind Barcelona, against whom the Germans came from behind to beat 2-1 in the second matchday, and was then pitted with Arsenal, Deportivo La Coruna, and Juventus in an even-looking Group D.
It didn’t start well, with Juventus trouncing Klaus Toppmoller’s side 4-0, but revenge was served to the Old Lady with a 3-1 Leverkusen victory in the penultimate match of that stage. Penalty-taking goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt converted from 12 yards to open the scoring, marking what was the first of three goals he’d tally against Juventus in European competition across his playing days.
The spirited victory was an example of the change of mentality Toppmoller was trying to instill at the BayArena. He was an eccentric manager – he once took a live eagle into the dressing room at Eintracht Frankfurt to demonstrate the aggression required to take down prey – but was desperate to rid the club of the lingering sadness from a last-day defeat to mid-table Unterhaching which surrendered the 1999-2000 Bundesliga title to Bayern Munich.
A win at Deportivo confirmed advancement to the Champions League quarter-finals, where Leverkusen was drawn against Liverpool. A 1-0 loss in the first leg at Anfield didn’t trump a new-found resolve, and three blown chances by Michael Owen in the second meeting allowed Lucio’s late left-footed shot to secure a 4-2 win on the night, and a 4-3 aggregate triumph overall.
The odds were unsurprisingly stacked against Leverkusen in the semi-final tilt with Manchester United. The club was in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory domestically (to the benefit of eventual Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund) but continued to shock on the continental scene.
Once again, Toppmoller looked to flood the middle of the park behind his lone frontman and future United striker Dimitar Berbatov, and his ranks pressed the opposition midfield with breakneck speed. Bayer Leverkusen went behind twice at Old Trafford in the opening leg, but levelled each time.
Those away goals in the closing bout were to prove priceless, as Oliver Neuville’s shot off the underside of the crossbar in first-half stoppage-time ruled out Roy Keane’s earlier finish. United tried to curate one of its trademark comebacks in the final moments, but a bullet from Diego Forlan was headed away by the ponytailed Diego Placente in the goalmouth.
Sir Alex Ferguson was denied the opportunity to take his United side to a major showpiece in his native Glasgow, leaving Leverkusen to take on Real Madrid.
Leverkusen was again largely unfancied to overcome Los Blancos’ Galacticos, but it was an even tussle in Scotland over the first 45 minutes. Raul’s agonising 8th-minute opener was cancelled out minutes later when Lucio rose above Fernando Hierro to plant a header into Cesar’s net, but Zinedine Zidane’s strike just before half-time was fitting for such an illustrious occasion.
Leverkusen harried for an equaliser amid increased pressure from Madrid, with Yildiray Basturk and Berbatov being denied in injury time by substitute goalkeeper Iker Casillas, the Germans unable force extra-time.
The heartbreaking 2-1 defeat accompanied another bottling of a Bundesliga title, and a defeat to Schalke in the DFB-Pokal final back in March, so the unwanted loser reputation stuck around. Toppmoller’s efforts to change Leverkusen’s mind-set had failed.
“Unfortunately for the plucky Germans, their ‘Neverkusen’ tag remains unbearably relevant,” BBC Sport mused after the final.
What happened next
The hangover from another disappointing season hung around the eastern bank of the Rhine, and Toppmoller was dismissed by Die Werkself the following February with the club positioned just one place above the relegation zone. He can’t be held solely responsible for Leverkusen’s downturn in form, as the eagle exhibitor fell victim to the vultures at Bayern Munich, who swooped for Ze Roberto and Michael Ballack.
His subsequent stint in charge of Hamburg lasted under a year as he made a host of peculiar decisions at the helm, and he last oversaw Georgia’s unsuccessful bid to qualify for Euro 2008. The obsession in trying to turn Leverkusen into a winner left him with three managerial honours over his whole career: runner-up in the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal final, and the Championship League.
The season Toppmoller was axed saw Leverkusen barely survive relegation, and it’s been a topsy-turvy time for the club since – and the peaks before the troughs saw the North Rhine-Westphalia outfit sadly follow its own blueprint. Leverkusen was a beaten finalist in the DFB-Pokal final once more in 2009, and finished second in the 2010-11 Bundesliga season.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)