Leverkusen revel in role of underdogs

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Until Bayer Leverkusen's DJ, in all innocence, put "You'll Never Walk Alone" on the public address, Manchester United supporters had clapped their German counterparts out of the BayArena on Tuesday night. The introduction of the Liverpool anthem put an angry end to that but the generous reaction of their initial response was not hard to understand.

The English love an underdog and, in European terms, Leverkusen are very much a dachshund. With a population of around 150,000 Leverkusen is arguably the smallest town ever to boast a European Cup finalist. Eindhoven, Nottingham, Bruges, St-Etienne, Malmo, even Rheims, are all bigger cities. At a time when the playing field is increasingly tilted in favour of bigger clubs, and the European Cup was specifically designed for that purpose, Leverkusen's emergence is remarkable and encouraging.

Not that their arrival on the European stage is all dewy-eyed romanticism. Though now a separate entity from the Bayer corporation, they receive a significant financial grant from the pharmaceutical giant. In that respect they are similar to PSV Eindhoven, still owned by Philips, or Parma, the footballing arm of the Parmalat dairy. Nor is Leverkusen a town in the way that Ipswich is. Part of the industrial Rhineland, it is not easy for the visitor to tell where Cologne ends and Leverkusen begins. Except on the football pitch, Cologne having been relegated to the Bundesliga's Second Division at the weekend.

While Leverkusen celebrated Cologne consoled themselves with history. They have won the German championship three times; unless Bayer win on Saturday, and Borussia Dortmund do not, Leverkusen will arrive in Glasgow for the 15 May final of the European Cup without ever being champions. It is an embarrassing incongruity for the marketing men of the Champions' League.

Sir Alex Ferguson said before the second leg that he hoped Bayer would win the Bundesliga as "it is good to see teams with small resources doing well". Perhaps, as Bayer later celebrated, his mind went back to his days at Aberdeen, whom he steered to an unexpected European Cup-Winners' Cup victory over Real Madrid.

Bayer's Ferguson is Klaus Toppmöller, an engaging man fond of quoting Sir Winston Churchill. Toppmöller has never won a major honour but, building on the work of Christophe Daum, he has formed an attractive un-German team. Committed to attack, rarely indulging in gamesmanship, with an emphasis on nimble flair rather than brute strength, Bayer may yet cause another surprise in Glasgow.

By then United's leading players will be at rest, gathering strength for the World Cup and pondering, like Ferguson, where it went wrong. Roy Keane, fronting up off the pitch as he did on it, admitted: "We blew it."

Keane, who overcame a hamstring injury to be United's most impressive player on the night, said: "These sort of chances don't come along very often and we blew it. The manager, the staff and the fans deserved better than this. It was probably not the standard we expect of ourselves over the two games."

After United went out in the quarter-finals last season Keane said the team needed major surgery. In spending £47m on Juan Sebastian Veron and Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ferguson seemed to have met that demand but he sold Jaap Stam, prompting defensive uncertainty, while the replacement, Laurent Blanc, adapted to the English game. Barring an unlikely collapse by Arsenal, this was not repaired in time to retain the Premiership.

Lingering instability, and injuries, also left them defensively vulnerable in Europe but while Van Nistelrooy was in form United overcame this. Now he seems drained by his first season combining the physical intensity of the Premiership with the mental demands of Europe. With Veron unable to find a role, and the squad lacking cover for David Beckham, United were found wanting in attack. One wondered, as the limping Lucio held United at bay, if the "fantasy" of Paolo Di Canio, whose purchase was stymied by the insistence that Dwight Yorke be sold first, would have made the difference. Ferguson may be wondering, too.