LEVERKUSEN: Bayer Leverkusen bowed out of the Champions League on Wednesday despite holding a weakened Barcelona side, led by goal-scorer Lionel Messi, to a 1-1 draw. The Argentinian superstar gave Barca the lead at the BayArena with a trademark early goal which was cancelled out by Javier Hernandez’s 14th for Leverkusen in all competitions this season. With Roma drawing 0-0 at home to BATE Borisov, Leverkusen had to beat Barcelona to progress but the Germans will instead find themselves in the Europa League come February. “I can’t believe that we didn’t win, I’m very disappointed, and the fact that Roma didn’t beat BATE makes it a tragedy,” said Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt. “We had the chances, we just didn’t use them.” The Spaniards went through to the knock-out stages, for the 12th year in succession, as Group E winners, ahead of Roma. Barcelona coach Luis Enrique started just four of the side which beat Juventus 3-1 in last season’s final in Berlin-goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Ivan Rakitic, Jordi Alba and captain Messi.
Cameroon teenager Wilfrid Kaptoum made his Champions League debut and midfielder Sergi Samper made only his third appearance at this level in an experimental side. First-choice Spain internationals Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique were left in Barcelona while Dani Alves was suspended. Brazil superstar Neymar injured his groin in training on Tuesday and Luis Suarez spent the game on the bench. The team selection was understandable as Barcelona have a busy spell coming up with the Catalans playing a Club World Cup semi-final in Japan on December 17.
“I wanted to give the players who have played the most this season a rest and I saw some good signs against a team which really had to win,” said Enrique. “This game was a litmus test to see how we’d cope. A few of our young players did well in the Champions League arena. “We’d like to have won, but Bayer gave their all and we didn’t want to burden our players with qualification assured.” Leverkusen failed in their bid to beat the Spanish giants despite having 25 shots on goal compared to the Spaniards’ six.
This was their seventh straight defeat to Barca, who took the lead when Rakitic’s through ball caught the defence napping and gave Messi a one-on-one with Bernd Leno. Barca’s superstar calmly rounded the Leverkusen goalkeeper and slotted home with a trademark finish on 20 minutes. Having been unlucky to lose 2-1 at the Camp Nou in September, Leverkusen did not panic at the BayArena and drew level when Hernandez claimed his 12th goal in Leverkusen’s last 11 games.
Swiss winger Admir Mehmedi put in a low cross, which Hakan Calhanoglu left for the Mexican striker and Hernandez crashed his shot past Ter Stegen with his left foot on 24 minutes. It was 1-1 at the break, but Calhanoglu missed a golden chance in the opening minutes of the second-half to put the hosts ahead. Hernandez lobbed pass put him one-on-one with Ter Stegen, but Calhanoglu fired across the face of the Barca goal. With an hour gone, Karim Bellarabi squandered a half-chance when he fired at Ter Stegen after getting in behind the defense. With ten minutes left another deft through ball from Rakitic released Sergio Ramirez for a rare Barcelona attack, but the Spain Under-21 winger’s cross was pounced on by Leno as it finished level. —AFP