Leverkusen hoping for major recovery
TSG will have fond memories of the reverse fixture in Leverkusen, with that 3-0 victory at the BayArena on Matchday 3 perhaps their best performance of the season. But a lot has changed since 13 August 2022 – not only in Hoffenheim, where Pellegrino Matarazzo will make his debut as TSG head coach on Saturday (15:30 CET / Live Ticker at tsg-hoffenheim.de), but in Leverkusen too. The men from the Rhineland have also appointed a new man in the dugout this season: Leverkusen parted ways with Gerardo Seoane in October and replaced him with Xabi Alonso. Formerly a world-class player, Alonso previously coached the Real Sociedad reserves and has steered Leverkusen away from more dangerous waters since his appointment. But a run of five successive wins has now been followed by two defeats – and after those losses at home to Dortmund (2-0) and in Augsburg (1-0), the recently reinvigorated belief that they can make up the ground and achieve their overarching goal of European football appears to be ebbing away.
Simon Rolfes also sounded a rather cautious tone with his assessment in a recent "kicker" interview. Alonso's performance so far has been "okay under the circumstances", but the managing director has called on the Leverkusen players in particular to step up: "They have to have this courage, this attitude and this composure in their play again. The players have to develop this self-image that we're a good team."
But the return of two key players who led Bayer 04 into Europe's elite club competition last season has given the former international faint hopes that another winning run can be put together. Super talent Florian Wirtz has already returned to Bundesliga action following a torn cruciate ligament, with Patrik Schick expected to follow suit in Sinsheim. The Czech, who last made an appearance on 29 October, is back in training with the team again – and the hope is that he will breathe new life into Leverkusen's recently faltering attacking play: "I expect him to be in the squad. He looks good, he's healthy, he's fine," said Rolfes, who emphasised the importance of the duo for Leverkusen's game: "Florian and Patrick are important players. When they are back in top form, it will change our attacking play significantly because they are outstanding players in the league. Both can create a lot."
Despite the recent setbacks and a 10-point gap opening up to sixth place, which would secure Europa League qualification, Leverkusen have not completely given up hope of playing top-level international matches next term – as attacking star Moussa Diaby made clear in an interview with the "Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger": "For us, every match is a final now," said Bayer 04's most prolific forward, who has six goals this season. He continued: "Anything can happen in the Bundesliga. Starting a winning streak is important and our objective."
Leverkusen have another possible route to reach Europe, potentially even the Champions League, which Diaby is still aiming for: they will play host to AS Monaco in the Europa League round of 16 next Thursday (21:00 CET). The winner of that competition will qualify for Europe's elite club competition – as Eintracht Frankfurt famously did last year.