By Enis Koylu
It was eerily familiar when Bayer Leverkusen stumbled their way to a 4-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of the Champions League last 16. For a long time, Sami Hyypia’s side have been solid when facing the Bundesliga’s finest - but shown up when paired with the best on the European stage.
And no one epitomises this quite like young goalkeeper Bernd Leno. The 22-year-old is a model of consistency in domestic football, but a walking calamity when the continent’s big guns are in town. His heartening performance in the Parc des Princes return was two little, too late.
For a goalkeeper his age, there’s little doubt that he’s had a relatively rapid rise and played a lot of top-level football. Plucked from Stuttgart’s reserves due to an injury to Rene Adler, he soon displaced the former Germany No.1 in the starting line-up and has long been touted as a future rival to Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Manuel Neuer in the international set up.
|LENO'S CONTRASTING FORM
| IN THE BUNDESLIGA
| IN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Former Milan star Alessandro Costacurta, now a respected pundit in Italy, went as far as saying that Leno is one of the best five goalkeepers in the world.
His performances were so impressive that his initial loan move was made permanent and Adler was allowed to run down his contract and join Hamburg. He has since been consistently linked with a number of Europe's major clubs, with Barcelona and Juventus having both followed his progress closely.
And, when facing the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the two best teams in Germany and among the hardest hitters European football has to offer, Leno has justified his reputation as a potential superstar.
Leverkusen have made a habit of frustrating the elite sides in the Bundesliga in recent years and Leno has been absolutely key. When they beat Bayern at the Allianz Arena last season he survived the inevitable barrage as Jupp Heynckes’ side dominated play, but were left empty-handed.
Similarly, B04 held Bayern to a draw earlier this term, with Leno the hero once more at the BayArena. They remain the last team to stop the Bavarians from taking maximum points in the Bundesliga and also the last to beat them, 17 months ago.
His efforts in Europe, though, have been nothing short of atrocious. The last-16 tie with Barcelona two years ago was his first big chance to announce himself to the world. Instead, he conceded seven at Camp Nou, many of which were inherently avoidable.
At the time, his poor performance could be explained by his inexperience – it was only his first season as a top-level footballer – and the magnitude of the occasion, with B04 already 3-1 down from the first leg and unfortunate to find Lionel Messi in unstoppable form.
Worryingly, though, in the 24 months since that night in Catalunya, his handling of the big occasion has barely improved. Ter Stegen’s swift progress saw him win a place in Germany’s full team, leaving Leno as the Under-21’s undisputed first choice.
However, at the Under-21 European Championship last summer, when presented with another chance to showcase his talent to a wider audience, he was again a failure - making a string of errors as his side fell at the first hurdle.
He retains an ambition to win a place in Joachim Low's squad for this summer, admitting: "I still have hope for the World Cup." And he has the backing of B04 sporting director and former Germany boss Rudi Voller, who has proclaimed that "Leno is the future". But selecting him for Brazil would be a massive risk for a coach like Low, who is under intense pressure to finally deliver a trophy.
When the current campaign began, Leverkusen and Leno were given a chance for redemption with their return to the Champions League. But while they negotiated a difficult group containing Real Sociedad, Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk, Leno failed to shine.
The Red Devils have been going through an abominable season domestically, yet were able to tear through Leverkusen with embarrassing ease - winning 4-2 at Old Trafford and 5-0 at the BayArena. Once again, their young goalkeeper, though a star in Germany, suffered two error-strewn performances.
The 4-0 thumping at home to Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 only seemed like deja vu. It has become abundantly clear that Hyypia’s side, though a solid outfit, cannot compete with Europe’s finest and their brightest talents have to consider their futures.
The likes of Lars Bender have done their reputation no harm, but what of Leno? Once touted as one of the next great German goalkeepers, his reputation has taken a battering. Links with the likes of Barcelona and Juventus remain but, for now at least, he is far from ready to make the step up to a big club.
When Leverkusen step out at the Allianz Arena on Saturday, you can back Leno to put in a good performance, but only because he is not on the big stage.