It was a historic win of sorts -- Bayer Leverkusen had not won any of its last seven games against Spanish teams in Europe -- and remarkable in the most enigmatic of ways. After the 2-1 win over Valencia on Wednesday night, players and officials weren't quite sure whether they should revel in a rather sensational second-half comeback or be shocked about the opening 40 minutes, when the whole team had "disappeared into an abyss of horror," as Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote. Michael Ballack, a 35-year-old veteran who has been around the block a few times, declared that non-performance before the break "probably the worst I've been involved in as a footballer."
It was a miracle that the visitors were only 1-0 up against a side who had either forgotten how to play the game or no interest in doing so. "We could not have played any worse," said André Schürrle, "you don't even win in the Verbandsliga (sixth tier of German football) like that." It's possible to have an off-day, of course, especially against the more experienced side of coach Unai Emery. But Leverkusen's frightening ineptitude, jeered by their own fans in the BayArena, could not have come at a worse time. Bayer needed to win to stay in the running in their Champions League group, and what's more, they needed a win and a good performance to quell the growing debate about Robin Dutt, the manager. The 46-year-old had plenty of bad press in the days before, as local papers hinted heavily of an air of mutiny in the dressing room. Dutt denied all the reports about discontent as tittle-tattle ("there is no truth in these stories, they are not fair on the team," he said) but perhaps unwisely linked his own fortunes to that of the team against Valencia: "If you don't like the manager," the coach said before the game, "you surely don't run 120 kilometers (collectively)."
When Leverkusen collectively ran less than 12 meters in the first half, however, it was tempting to interpret the players' passivity as a silent vote of no confidence. One could see it in Dutt's increasingly agitated demeanor on the touchline: he was aware that he was 45 minutes away from the sack, or at the very least, from the beginning of the end of his tenure. The Bayer board would have been forced to react to that disaster.
Fortunately for the former SC Freiburg coach, however, Bayer woke up to their own strengths a few minutes before the break and overwhelmed the Spaniards with two devastating attacks inside four minutes. Schürrle scored the equalizer before Sidney Sam had Bayer take the lead with a superb run and nicely angled shot (56.). Sam and most of the team ran to the touchline to celebrate with the coach, who did a fine "Superman" impression with his right fist in the air and left the stadium in triumphant mood. Leverkusen (6 points) is second in the group behind leaders Chelsea (seven points) and well-placed to advance to the last 16. "The team showed that they wanted it tonight," Dutt said. "I was protecting them in recent weeks and am happy that there was some payback from them today."
The players, too realized the importance of the result for their superior. "The press had it in for him," said the magnificent young keeper Bernd Leno, "but today you saw that the whole team is behind him." "I get on with him well, I'm very happy for him,", added Schürrle. Maybe the match will one day go down as a huge turning point one day, along the lines of Louis van Gaal's 4-1 win away to Juventus in December 2009, when the Bayern bosses had come very close to firing him in light of poor results and discontent in the dressing room. Munich went on to win the double and reach the Champions League final that season.
A similar fairytale ending is probably beyond Bayer's capabilities though. And the strained relationship between players and coach will not be mended by one heroic comeback alone. The celebrations with the manager and supportive statements could not mask the fact that Dutt cut a very isolated figure in the days before. A number of players had compared his authoritarian and tactically hyper-active style - he'd changed things around six times in the chaotic 2-2 draw at Gladbach on Saturday - unfavorably with the relaxed, experienced predecessor Jupp Heynckes, who had talked with a lot of the players. The perhaps over-ambitious Dutt did not, they implied. Even sporting director Rudi Völler, who had backed his man throughout the difficult start to the season, conceded that he had "never seen a manager who thinks about things so much." It wasn't entirely meant as compliment.
Some of Dutt's reported mistakes, like taking Schnitzel and sweet desserts off the players' menu, have long been quietly rectified but the steady flow of murmurs cannot be ignored. Kölner Stadtanzeiger revealed that some players were mocking Dutt's exercises in training, for example, and his constant changes haven't gone down well either even if his professional expertise as such is not question. The manager himself conceded making mistakes, namely in the way he dealt with the problem of Ballack and captain Simon Rolfes, who are both vying for the same position. After stating that they could "never" play together, Dutt back-tracked to include both. Ballack was a key factor in Bayer's renaissance after the break on Wednesday. The former Germany captain might even have his contract extended for another year now.
There are is also the fundamental question whether Bayer's highly talented but "not easily handled squad" are a good match for a manager who hasn't worked with big names before. Last year, former Germany striker Völler was a very effective bad cop to Heynckes' good one, and as a duo, they managed to take the club to its first Champions League start in seven years. This season, however, Völler had to make up for Dutt's lack of emotional intelligence and the set-up doesn't quite work. It should be added that the clumsy interventions of CEO Wolfgang Holzhäuser haven't helped matter either. Two weeks ago, Holzhäuser criticized Brazilian midfielder Renato Augusto for playing "alibi football", a harsh statement that wasn't met with approval in the dressing room. His surprising lack of sensitivity was also at show in the wake of the 2-0 defeat at Chelsea. Holzhäuser congratulated Manuel Friedrich on his birthday in front of the whole team, sponsors and journalists in the team hotel but patronizingly added that the defender was "a role model despite not being a top defender anymore." The 32-year-old actually replaced the out-of-sorts Stefan Reinartz against Valencia ta half-time and brought much needed experience and stability to the back four.
The win has bought Dutt some time with his team and his critics but it's doubtful whether the peace would survive a bad result at home to Schalke 04 on Sunday. Leverkusen, one of the best run clubs in the Bundesliga, has rarely been such a volatile, interesting place. Maybe that's a price worth paying, however, for the best squad since a young Ballack took Lucio, Berbatov, Schneider and Co all the way to the Champions League final in 2002.