Back in early August 2011, Bernd Leno was in action at the Jahn Stadium in the Bavarian provincial city of Regensburg. In the sweltering summer heat, he and his Stuttgart U-23 team-mates had just been beaten 2-0 by Jahn Regensburg in the German third division. The goalkeeper was his team's man of the match, preventing a more embarrassing defeat with a string of fine saves. As it turned out, it was to be Leno's last appearance for the Stuttgart reserves.
Almost exactly six months later, the 19-year-old is on the verge of the biggest and most important match of his short career to date. He is currently first choice for Bayer Leverkusen, who entertain holders Barcelona in a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg clash on Tuesday evening.
“My life has been turned on its head in the last six months,” the likeable youngster reflected, “I was playing in the third division, but just half a year later, we're up against Barcelona. It's like a film script, going from nowhere to the very top all at once.”
Illustrious predecessor Adler
Following a serious knee injury to former Germany keeper Rene Adler, Leverkusen were forced into an emergency raid on the transfer market last August, opting to take Leno on loan for six months. It turned out to be an inspired move both for the club and the talented youngster, already marked down as a potential future great by observers of the German youth scene.
A matter of four days after signing for Bayer, the Swabia-born player made his Bundesliga debut in a 1-0 victory over Werder Bremen. The next test of the starlet’s nerves and talent came just under three weeks later, when he travelled with Leverkusen to face Premier League giants Chelsea. The Rhineland side fell 2-0 at Stamford Bridge, but Leno enhanced his burgeoning reputation with a world-class display, saving his side from a potential hiding.
“Out of the blue, after only a month at the club, I was up against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in London. It was a really odd feeling, a bit like a dream really," Leno confessed to FIFA.com. By playing against the Blues, he became the youngest German keeper ever to appear in the European Cup or Champions League.
Authority and a cool head
Our conversation with Leno confirmed the qualities and attributes which have taken him so far in such a short space of time. He is coolness personified, emanating composure and authority, with exceptional maturity for his young age. That is not to downplay the Hollywood dimension to the story: in many ways, the Leverkusen keeper is a just a regular lad, suddenly plucked from obscurity and sent on an adventure into the unknown.
We’re at home with the crowd behind us, so we're hoping for a good display. Barcelona have dropped quite a few points of late, so why shouldn't they do the same against us?
“It was all a bit new to me at first,” he admitted. “I had no-one to wash my clothes or clean my flat, so it was a bit of a change. But it's all part of the learning process, whether you're a footballer or a student or whatever. I can assure you I don't have a cleaning lady," he insisted with a grin.
Many a young player has been knocked off course by a similarly stratospheric ascent through the footballing ranks, but Leno believes a close relationship with his parents has helped him keep his feet on the ground. “They're making sure I don't get ideas above my station. It’s all happened very fast, but I think I've done very well so far."
From reserve to future great
Leno’s temperament and character, and of course his outstanding displays in the German top flight and in Europe, persuaded Leverkusen to table a substantial six-figure sum and sign the keeper for the next five-and-a-half years. High-profile transfers like that have proved enough to destroy many a promising career in the past, but the 19-year-old is an expert at converting pressure into positive energy.
“After the transfer was completed, I had a very good talk with my coach,” Leno reported. “He told me I didn't need to change anything, I just needed to play my football and stay the way I am. I've coped well so far. Obviously, there's a certain amount of pressure, but I think you can turn it to your advantage. Positive tension and adrenaline can help you improve your performance."
In the wake of an inconsistent campaign so far, Bayer lie a disappointing sixth in the Bundesliga at present, significantly below expectations. However, Leno has provided a ray of light and plenty of hope for the club’s future, both in the domestic league and in Europe.
Keenly anticipating Barça
Leno will need to be at his best this evening when the FIFA Club World Cup holders visit the BayArena. “It's a highlight for all of us. You don't face Barcelona every day, and just looking at their star names, they're the best team in the world. We have to go out and enjoy it, because we deserve it," said the player, a self-confessed fan of Real Madrid stalwart Iker Casillas.
“We'll give it our best shot, and we'll see what happens. We’re at home with the crowd behind us, so we're hoping for a good display. Barcelona have dropped quite a few points of late, so why shouldn't they do the same against us?" commented Leno, alluding to Barça's patchy performances in La Liga this term.
The Catalan giants are a yawning ten points adrift of Casillas and company, but Leno is still keen to help his idol keep the Spanish champions at bay. “Maybe we can do him a favour and cause Barcelona some bother," Leno concluded, grinning from ear to ear. It's a fair bet that the young keeper could not have imagined uttering that statement just six short months ago.