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Bayer Leverkusen complete undefeated domestic season as Granit Xhaka downs Kaiserslautern in DFB-Pokal final

BERLIN — If it wasn’t quite the history they hoped to make on Wednesday morning, it was not bad going for Bayer Leverkusen either. Fifty two and one, the first German double winners to go through an entire domestic campaign without defeat. That there was no Europa League title to go with it should barely dull the triumph for a club that has so often borne witness to the glory of others.

Victory was more hard fought than it might have been given the occasion but playing down to 10 men for more than half of the DFB Pokal gave Germany a chance to see a different side to Leverkusen. Xabi Alonso’s men went 51 without loss primarily because of the quality of their players, tactics and coaching. But even teams with all those qualities don’t do what Leverkusen nearly did. You need a bit of bloody-mindedness to pair with your prime cut of Granit Xhaka walloping.

Not that many would have expected Kaiserslautern, champions of Germany in relatively recent memory but more recently battling to stave off the drop from 2. Bundesliga, to pose any great challenge to Leverkusen’s bid for domestic invincibility. The pre-match tifo — a red devil engulfed in smoke, a volcano billowing behind him — warned of fire and brimstone. The representatives of the Westkurve certainly delivered that but when a shot on Lukas Hradecky’s goal was cause for the lighting of eight flares, you sensed that the Kaiserslautern faithful might have known from the off that there would not be much to celebrate against the champions.

That certainly seemed to be the case when, after 17 minutes of increasingly assertive possession, Xhaka cut out the middle man, banging the ball home from 30 yards. He only scores bangers, they say in Leverkusen. It says everything about the remarkable season of him and his teammates that this might not even reach the podium of Xhaka goals for the season.

Everyone knew what was coming next, the slow grind of pass after pass in the mold of Alonso’s playing days. He might recoil at the label tiki-taka being applied to his Leverkusen side but he also appears to understand the value of slowing it down, quelling the bedlam in the away end by cycling the ball between Xhaka, Jonathan Tah and anyone else in black and red who fancies a touch.

It was all going so swimmingly until Odilon Kossounou stretched just too far for a ball out of reach. Instead, his studs got hold of Boris Tomiak’s ankle and for the first time in 364 days, Leverkusen were playing a man short. What they have asked of so many opponents they found themselves tasked with — hold firm, survive the possession, break out when you can. The inventive 3-4-2-1 that has stretched German pitches beyond their natural limits suddenly became two banks of four, what we have, we hold.

July 4 coming early in the away end, delaying the resumption of play by around three minutes gave substitutes Josip Stanisic and Amine Adli time to settle into the occasion. Kaiserslautern saw altogether more of the ball than they had in a first half where Xhaka threatened to outpossess the opposition in their entirety but that did not suit them that much.

This was a side surely prepared by veteran head coach Friedhelm Funkel to hit Leverkusen hard on the counter and it was there that they posed the greatest threat. Twice in three minutes around the hour, Ragnar Ache led one man charges up the gut, driving wide from range when holding onto possession might have opened up more opportunities. Given the bedlam that those half chances created, you rather wondered if an equalizer would leave this ground in no fit state to host the Euros.

An answer never came. Whatever Alonso said to Florian Wirtz when he interrupted a quick throw to embrace his star playmaker did the trick. He got Leverkusen singing again, winning the ball high up and unleashing counters from which Jeremie Frimpong might have made more. No matter, Kaiserslautern found 10 Leverkusen men no easier an opponent than the top tier had found 11 to be.

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