"We threw away the chance of a better result. We were clearly the better team. We dominated the game, but Villarreal ruthlessly punished us for our mistakes. And we made too many of those." This was how Bayer Leverkusen defender Sami Hyypia tersely summarised his side’s 3-2 defeat to Villarreal in the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 a week ago for FIFA.com.
This Thursday, the Spanish top flight outfit entertain the Bundesliga club in the second leg at El Madrigal. The team lying fourth in La Liga are clear favourites to progress after Brazil international Nilmar’s stoppage-time winner at the BayArena, but Hyypia insists Bayer’s task is far from hopeless.
"Obviously, we’re in a fairly poor position, but extraordinary things happen in football. You only look at the score after both matches have been played,” declared the man capped 105 times by Finland.
Dreaming of Liverpool reunion
Should Jupp Heynckes’ men defy the odds and sink the Yellow Submarine to claim a berth in the next round, Leverkusen’s quarter-final opponents could yet be Liverpool. Hyypia, who made a total of 314 appearances for the Reds between 1999 and 2009, would relish the meeting and consider it a highlight of his career, as the 37-year-old told FIFA.com.
"Obviously, it would be very special for me," he said. "I’d definitely receive a warm welcome at Anfield. But we’re a long, long way off even earning the chance of that happening, so I’m not thinking about it at all."
The home defeat places Bayer firmly on the back foot in Europe this season, but the 1988 UEFA Cup winners are having a very good campaign overall. Twenty-six games into the Bundesliga programme, Leverkusen lie second and are well placed to claim a berth in the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2004/05.
"We can be very pleased. We’ve dropped a few points here and there, but we’re still second, behind only Borussia Dortmund, who’ve been in a class of their own this season. We’re confident it’ll stay that way,” said Hyypia. "Our target is second place. That's nothing new, and our position hasn’t worsened at all over recent weeks,” the defender continued, laying down the gauntlet to the chasing pack of Hannover, Bayern Munich and Mainz.
I don’t mind the lads calling me grandad, even if I’m just another player like anyone else. I have no problem handing out advice if I’m asked, but I’m not the sort to go around pointing fingers at anyone.
Leverkusen have benefited from a flourishing crop of younger players, chief among them 23-year-old Sidney Sam, signed from promoted Kaiserslautern at the start of the season. The former Germany U-21 international has contributed a creditable 11 goals this term.
The likes of Stefan Reinartz (22), Daniel Schwab (22), Gonzalo Castro (23), Lars Bender (21), Arturo Vidal (23) and Renato Augusto (23) have also come on in leaps and bounds. Augusto recently received his first Brazil call-up and is on seven goals in the Bundesliga this term, while Chile star Vidal has emerged as a commanding figure in the Leverkusen midfield.
"On the one hand, our young team has gained another useful year of experience. On the other hand, we’ve strengthened the team in specific areas, with players who not only boast the necessary quality, but who’ve also seen it all in football," Hyypia explained, specifically referring to the signings of Michael Ballack (34) and Hanno Balitsch (30), although both seasoned campaigners have only played bit parts so far. "We’re not easily thrown out of our stride," he added.
Hyypia’s long years playing at the highest level have added a powerful degree of stability to an otherwise young team. The player described his role under Heynckes with a broad smile on his lips: "I don’t mind the lads calling me grandad, even if I’m just another player like anyone else. That's how I see it at least. I have no problem handing out advice if I’m asked, but I’m not the sort to go around pointing fingers at anyone. I try and contribute to our success as a team, on the field and in the dressing room. And I think that’s what’s expected of me."
Praise for Heynckes
Sporting director Rudi Voller and his coach have assembled a promising blend of youth and experience, with a good chance of success both domestically and in Europe. The 65-year-old Heynckes rates as one of the most respected and consistently successful coaches in the world game. A FIFA World Cup™ winner as a player in 1974, his coaching honours include the 1998 Champions League with Real Madrid and the Bundesliga title with Bayern in 1989 and 1990.
Hyypia, a native of Porvoo in the south of Finland, appreciates Heynckes’ qualites. "He takes a lot of the credit for our success. He’s seen everything there is to see in the game, and he’s won things as a player and as a coach. He’s good at passing on what he’s learned. Jupp Heynckes has brought us on as a team and made us very stable. It's no accident that we’re having such a good season."
It is thoroughly possible that Hyypia could at some point follow in Heynckes’ footsteps. The foundation has already been laid, as the Finn, whose playing contract expires in June 2012, revealed at the end of his interview with FIFA.com: "I have a follow-on contract with Bayer, and I’ll be staying here for a good few years. With the club’s support, I aim to qualify as a coach. And I’ll be picking up practical coaching experience with a very good Bundesliga club while doing that. So if I’m interested in a coaching career later on, I’ll be able to start at a decent level."