Bayer Leverkusen (4) 1-0 (1) Rangers, BayArena, Leverkusen
How do you replace one of the best young players in the world? It’s a question that’s puzzled several Bundesliga clubs in recent years and will likely puzzle one or two more, including Bayer Leverkusen, this summer.
Kai Havertz is rumored to be close to a signing for Premier League side Chelsea. But after a comfortable victory at the Bay Arena on Thursday, he has an unexpectedly late chance at a trophy with the club he joined as a boy.
Leverkusen will play Inter Milan at Fortuna Düsseldorf’s Merkur Spiel-Arena in the last eight on Monday when Manchester United play Copenhagen in Cologne.
And it’s a player raised in Cologne who may prove the answer to that tricky succession question, if Peter Bosz’s team selection was anything to go by.
Havertz only human after all
Florian Wirtz, 17, was picked in the number 10 position usually reserved for Havertz, with the more senior man moved to the right hand side of the attack. But a player of Havertz’ qualities and attitude is able to thrive in all sorts of positions and came close to giving Leverkusen the lead with a thumping volley that rattled the bar after 17 minutes. The anticipation and the quality of the strike made it easy to see why he’s drawn so much interest.
But, soon after, there was a reminder that Havertz is only human, and only 21, when he was played through one-on-one with Rangers veteran keeper Allan McGregor. The first touch was excellent, Havertz cushioning the ball on to his favored left foot, but he pulled the shot wide of the post.
There was to be a similarly wasteful miss shortly after the break, but by that point Moussa Diaby’s powerful finish from a smart Charles Aranguiz pass meant it was unlikely to matter.
Meanwhile, Wirtz, the man who would be king, was busy rather than showy, but his quality was clear to see. He was assured in possession, weighted passes nicely and was denied a fine breakaway goal on 42 minutes by an excellent, if desperate, Filip Helander block.
Had that one gone in, Wirtz would have become the Europa League’s youngest goalscorer. It’s a title he already holds in the Bundesliga after a late consolation curler against Bayern Munich in June.
He also replaced Havertz as the youngest player in Leverkusen’s history earlier in the season. But replacing him as the attacking fulcrum of the Werkself is a taller order. The signs are there but, naturally enough, the experience is not.
Wirtz has been touted for big things since his time in Cologne’s academy. His potential was such that Leverkusen were prepared to break an agreement with Cologne and Borussia Mönchengladbach that the clubs would not poach each others’ young players despite being close geographically.
“We showed Florian the sporting benefits he could gain with us, and certainly also the benefits from the fact that in the past, we gave many young players such as Kai Havertz, Julian Brandt or Benjamin Henrichs the chance to play in the Champions League from an early age,” said the club’s sporting direction Rudi Voller of Wirtz before the end of the domestic season.
But after stumbling over the line in the league, Leverkusen are currently unable to offer Champions League football, a failure that seems likely to push Havertz closer to the door. Though, after this result, there’s still a chance that qualification can be assured with a win in the final in Cologne on August 21. Bosz might just be hoping he can keep the present and develop the future at the same time.