Classic matches revisited: Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 Liverpool - Power of Ballack too much for Reds

On their way to the 2002 Champions League final, Bayer Leverkusen went all out against Liverpool with their star man leading the charge

Classic matches revisited: Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 Liverpool - Power of Ballack too much for Reds
Michael Ballack rises above a crowd of Liverpool defenders to score his second goal | Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

If it was suggested that this article was going to be about a Champions League comeback, Liverpool, or Bayer Leverkusen, it might be reasonable to suggest that for once, the Germans might not come out on top.

After all, Liverpool love a European comeback - they might have mentioned it - and Leverkusen's most memorable contribution to the 2001/02 Champions League was probably Zinedine Zidane smacking one in the top bin against them in the final.

But, to reach the final of European football's premier competition, you generally have to do some legwork along the way - and one night in Western Germany in early April 2002, Bayer Leverkusen had to do more than most.

Ballack blasts Leverkusen level early on

Though Sami Hyypiä's first-leg tap-in had left Gérard Houllier's side with only a slender one-goal advantage going into the second game, Liverpool up to that point possessed the meanest defence in the competition.

Seven goals conceded in twelve group games - this was the era of the second group stage - and six clean sheets along the way meant that Klaus Toppmöller's admittedly free-scoring side went into the second leg as underdogs, but it didn't take long for their talismanic midfielder to drag them back to parity.

Michael Ballack was, at the time, somewhere close to the peak of his powers. 23 goals and 12 assists set him up for a stellar World Cup later that year and a subsequent €12.9 million move to Bayern Munich, but there were few contributions more eye-catching than his first against Liverpool.

It was a goal for the ages. Receiving the ball from Yıldıray Baştürk some 30 yards from goal, Ballack immediately looked to surge forward and took aim with his right foot, with Steven Gerrard advancing menacingly upon him.

It was a delicious feint. Ballack pulled back but didn't pull the trigger, knocking the ball instead onto his left to send Gerrard sprawling unceremoniously past him as he attempted to block a shot that never came.

What followed was a goal which rubbished any co-commentator's claim that a ball can be 'struck too well'. Taking a moment to steady himself with Gerrard still finding his way back to the same postcode, Ballack simply struck a shot as well as it is possible to strike one, pressing the big red button on a left-footed missile which seared across the outstretched palms of Jerzy Dudek and into the top-right corner.

The 22,500-capacity BayArena shuddered in appreciation as Ballack raised the badge to his lips, and the home side took inspiration in a first half which they dominated.

Resolute Liverpool hit back

Chances came and went as red-and-black striped shirts set up camp in the visitors' half, with Hyypiä and Stéphane Henchoz keeping the ship afloat and refusing to let Liverpool fall behind on aggregate.

It was a commendable effort, and one which bore fruit as they wrenched back control of the tie with an away goal against the run of play in the dying moments of the half.

The equaliser came from an unlikely source, and in less spectacular fashion than Ballack's opener. Michael Owen won a corner, Danny Murphy delivered it from the left, and the sensationally bearded Abel Xavier met it eight yards out, flicking a header between goalkeeper Jörg Butt and a defender on the back post.

Perhaps, to some extent, this was Liverpool's mistake. They angered the beast. Forwards Oliver Neuville and Dimitar Berbatov were brought on in reaction to the equaliser, and Leverkusen's slick attacking play went into overdrive.

Quickfire goals hand Germans advantage

It was a move which came laced with peril, as Owen hit the post when put through one-on-one with Butt soon after the restart but, with 20 minutes of the second half played, Ballack struck again.

His second goal was not as spectacular as the first but was one which showcased his irrepressible spirit. As a looping cross came in from the right, it was the 6'2" frame of the then 25-year-old which rose highest to direct a pinpoint header into the bottom-left corner.

Five minutes later, Ballack must have thought he would have his hat-trick. Zé Roberto and Baştürk combined to tee him up on the edge of the area but he slipped and mis-hit his shot.

Chaos ensued in the penalty area as shots, blocks, and goalline clearances rained in, but it was the young Bulgarian Berbatov who was on hand to pounce on Hyypiä's last-ditch stop and trigger an explosion of joy in the stands. Back in front on aggregate, Leverkusen had nullified the Liverpool away goal.

Litmanen forces the issue for Liverpool

But, Liverpool doing as Liverpool do, it was the English side who looked to have snatched a late winner through substitute Jari Litmanen.

It was a second stunning goal for the fans to enjoy, but could not have been much more different from Ballack's first-half howitzer. A second assist of the night for Murphy came as he knocked the ball over to the Finland captain in some space towards the left corner of the penalty area.

Litmanen drifted inside, umming and ahhing about the shot as he took one, two, then three defenders out of the equation before finally seizing the opportunity to dart the ball inside the far bottom corner.

3-3 on aggregate, Liverpool once again had the away goals they needed to take them through to the semi-finals, and only ten minutes to hold out.

Leverkusen joy with Lúcio winner

Ten minutes is a long time when your opponents are throwing ten men at you, though. Lúcio, the oddly prolific centre-half, was one of them. He scored 21 times in four seasons in Leverkusen before following Ballack to Munich, and actually scored in the 2002 final. 

First, though, the quarter-final had to be put to bed. Liverpool tried to shut up shop but were undone by a threaded pass from Baştürk which saw Lúcio burst into the penalty area.

In behind but at a tight angle off to the left, the defender had plenty to do but did it with aplomb, firing hard and low between the spaghetti legs of the beaten Dudek.

At last, the scoring was complete. Leverkusen, determined not to let the lead slip once more, held firm for the final few minutes.

The aftermath

They dispatched another Premier League heavyweight in the semi-finals as Manchester United were beaten on away goals in a six-goal tie, with Ballack notching once more along the way.

The final didn't go their way as Zidane weaved his magic, but it was a hugely memorable run in a season where Leverkusen were forced to play bridesmaid on numerous fronts. 

Schalke beat them in the DFB-Pokal final just four days before the Champions League showpiece in Glasgow, and Borussia Dortmund pipped them by a single point in the Bundesliga.

Liverpool's season wasn't quite as successful, but admittedly brought their supporters less heartbreak.

They finished second in the league as well but ended up seven points behind champions Arsenal, but domestic and European super cup wins proved the highlights as cup runs elsewhere failed to materialise.

Ballack was the undisputed star of the Leverkusen show, and his departure before the new campaign rocked the club. They finished the following season in 15th, just one place and four points above the relegation zone.

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This article is the second in its series, 'Classic Matches Revisited'. Check out number one by travelling from Leverkusen to Oldham for an eight-goal belter in the Premier League's early days.