When Diego Simeone named Bayer Leverkusen alongside the likes of Chelsea and Atletico Madrid as a team he thought could trouble the UEFA Champions League’s established elite, it might have seemed as if he was simply showing respect to his next opponent.
Roger Schmidt’s side are sixth in the Bundesliga and finished behind Monaco in what looked to be a relatively forgiving Group C.
But in Hakan Calhanoglu, Son Heung-Min and Karim Bellarabi they boast an exciting, energetic forward trio that can have even Europe’s strongest defences on the back foot.
Few were better than Atletico’s during last season’s competition, but they were powerless to resist the attacking midfielders’ invention and movement. The crucial moment came when Bellarabi spotted Calhanoglu’s run, patiently held on to the ball, and then backheeled it into his path.
Calhanoglu, Leverkusen’s No.10, scampered around the outside of the defence and slammed a powerful shot into the roof of the net from a tight angle. Just 21, two seasons ago the Turk was playing for Karlsruher in the German third division. Now he is emerging as one of Europe’s brightest young stars.
Wickedly dipping free kicks are his specialty – only Lionel Messi has created more chances than Calhanoglu in the Champions League this season, and eight of his 19 have come from set pieces.
Simeone and Atletico place a huge emphasis on dead-ball situations and Calhanoglu has been linked with them for some time. He chose to stay in Germany, signing for Leverkusen for €14.5 million, and became the first player to score against goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya in the Champions League after the Spaniard’s remarkable five clean sheets in the group stage.
The most significant challenge of Calhanoglu’s career so far awaits in Madrid, but he looks at home against last season’s runners up.