After match-turning displays from Patrik Schick and Moussa Diaby secured Bayer Leverkusen’s return to the Champions League, Rudi Völler and Simon Rolfes exchanged handshakes and shared a sense of quiet satisfaction at their part in the success.
Rolfes, currently sporting director, will step up to replace Völler as managing director of sports when the season ends with the visit of Freiburg next Saturday. He recently told DW that using the sales of Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt to fund Schick and Diaby was part of a wider strategy designed to try to gradually bridge the chasm between Leverkusen and the two teams above them: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
“The strategy was to create a young squad with young players with a lot of talent. We’re convinced we’re able to handle that talent, and that’s a perfect environment for really high-potential players like Moussa Diaby,” the former Germany international said.
“We’re trying to grow with the talent and potential of the players in our squad and take steps forward and try to keep them maybe one or two years longer than they would usually be here,” he added.
Diaby in particular may prove difficult to retain, though, even with the added lure of Champions League football. His talents were on full display on Saturday — after creating Schick’s first with a low cross, he rifled home Leverkusen’s second equalizer of the day.
But the day didn’t just belong to the Frenchman. Schick added a second goal moments later and an injury time effort from Lucas Alario secured the 4-2 win over Hoffenheim that takes them back to Europe’s top table. Alario’s was the club’s 78th goal of the Bundesliga season, the most in their history.
“That’s the fantasy we had with these players: It’s come to life, and it’s not only in your mind — but you can see it on the pitch,” Rolfes said of the current crop ahead of the run in.
With the financial disparity between the very top tier of European clubs and those such as Leverkusen just below them, getting an extra year out of players like Diaby or the injured Florian Wirtz is, according to Rolfes, one of few ways to make incremental gains. Players of that class require Champions League football to stay. Now they have it, Leverkusen have a chance to grow and perhaps narrow the gap to Borussia Dortmund, if not Bayern.
“I’m very proud of the team: Many didn’t believe in us anymore,” said defender Jonathan Tah, referring to a late season wobble that threatened to undermine a campaign where the Werkself have been one of the Bundesliga’s most exciting sides. But quietly assured head coach Gerardo Seoane has steadied the ship with three wins in a row.
“We are really happy. We missed out on the Champions League in the last two years, so it was our big goal this season,” Rolfes told Sky after qualification was assured.
Though Völler will be equally happy to head toward retirement knowing that his club is in good shape on and off the pitch, his replacement will know that his work is just beginning. If Diaby does go, a replacement won’t be easy to find. But he takes comfort in the fact he’s done it before.
“Imagine if Kai [Havertz] still would play here with Florian [Wirtz], with Moussa, with Patrik Schick in our offense, it would be fantastic,” Rolfes said. “But sometimes we have to sell one. We knew when we sold Kai that we had Moussa. You’re a lucky guy if you’re part of the top six in Europe then maybe you don’t have to sell. But for all the other clubs, that’s life.”
They may not yet be part of Europe’s real elite but Leverkusen now know that they will soon at least be rubbing shoulders with them.
Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp