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Sports

Leverkusen miss their big chance - in more ways than one

On the pitch, Bayer Leverkusen’s 5-0 defeat at the feet of Manchester United in the Champions League may have been a one-off. Off the pitch, though, it was a setback for efforts to spruce up the club’s image.

How often have fans of Germany's "other" Champions League participants complained that the country's free-TV stations with the rights to broadcast live games from Europe's premier club competition almost always seem to choose the mighty Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund over them?

This season's campaign started out with more of the same, with ZDF public television broadcasting Bayern or Dortmund matches through the first four match days of the Champions League's group stage.

Wednesday was different though. Many a Leverkusen supporter must have had the date penned into their calendar for weeks - ever since ZDF announced back in September that their club would finally get a chance to shine in front of a national audience on Match Day 5.

The club's brass certainly did - including Michael Schade, who took over from Wolfgang Holzhäuser as Leverkusen's managing director early last month.

Plans for an image makeover

Shortly after taking the post, Schade announced plans to launch a campaign to improve the image of the club, which in German is often referred to by virtually anyone but Leverkusen supporters as "Vizekusen" ("second-place-kusen"), in reference to its lack of Bundesliga titles. Speaking to a sports business conference in Leverkusen, Schade said it was time for the club to shed its image as the Rodney Dangerfield of German soccer. The team on the pitch, he argued, didn't get the respect it deserved, and the club wasn't bringing in the revenue it could.

Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa (L) attempts to score past Bayer Leverkusen's goalkeeper Bernd Leno (R) during their Champions League Group A soccer match at the BayArena in Leverkusen November 27, 2013. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender (GERMANY - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)

It was a long night for Leverkusen's keeper, Bernd Leno

"Nobody has really noticed what Bayer 04 [Leverkusen] achieved by finishing in third place last season," Schade said, noting that the club's home ground, the 30,000-capacity BayArena, "isn't sold out often enough."

On Wednesday, though, with the legendary Manchester United in town, it pretty much was. Not only that, but the DPA news agency reported the morning after that an estimated 5.59 million viewers had watched the game live on ZDF - compared to between three and four million when Bayern was the German fans' rooting interest.

Schade couldn't have hoped for a better stage to show off a usually stylish team that has worked its way up to second place in the Bundesliga this season.

'Embarrasing' performance

Too bad, then, that the "Werkself" somehow happened to leave their "A-Game" in the dressing room.

Prior to the match, sporting director Rudi Völler appeared cautiously optimistic that against a Manchester United languishing in an unfamiliar 6th place in the Premier League, Leverkusen could get a result, maybe even a win, which would have sealed qualification for the knock-out stage.

After the game, a visibly downtrodden Völler, conceded that "5-0 is definitely an embarrassment." He also spoke of the need for the players to put the result behind them as quickly as possible. "Thank God that we're playing again on Saturday," the former Germany manager said, referring to the upcoming Bundesliga contest at home to lowly Nuremberg.

Another former national team manager, Franz Beckenbauer, seemed to think Leverkusen's disappointing performance was nothing but a bad day at the office.

“It's just one of those days,” Beckenbauer told Sky Sports after the game. “You can play so bad sometimes, you just have such days… [when] it's better to stay home and not even look out the window.”

Ghosts of the past

Leverkusen supporters can only hope that Beckenbauer is right. But Leverkusen being Leverkusen, many others were quick to remind them (had they managed to forget), of the club's last appearance in the Champions league in 2012, which saw them take a similar beating in Barcelona, being knocked out by a two-legged aggregate score of 10-2 – albeit in the Round of 16. That's not to mention the 2001-02 season, when the club really earned its Vizekusen nickname, finishing runners-up in the Bundesliga, the Champions League, and even the German Cup.

Chris Smalling and Ryan Giggs of Manchester United celebrate with team mates after Emir Spahic of Bayer Leverkusen (not pictured) scored an own goal to make it 2-0 during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between Bayer Leverkusen and Manchester United at BayArena on November 27, 2013 in Leverkusen, Germany. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

An example for Leverkusen to follow?

Leverkusen, though, could go someway towards allaying their supporters' fears, by beating Real Sociedad in their last Group A game in Spain. With a little help from Manchester United in their match against the group's current second place side, Shakhtar Donetsk, they could even advance to the round of 16.

Hope for the future

After Wednesday's match, coach Sami Hyypia said he hoped to use the result as something of a wake-up call for his squad.

"This game is hopefully good for the future because everyone can see that we are still not where we want to be," he said. "We need to work hard to improve."

For his part, Schade, who brushed by reporters after the game, has plans to take the Bayer Leverkusen brand into the Asian market, which Europe's biggest clubs have already tapped into. At last month's sports business conference, Schade announced that Leverkusen was set to take a page out of Manchester United's book, embarking on a tour of Asia after the current season ends.

He can only hope that between now and then, Leverkusen perform in a way that will make the fans both at home an abroad forget all about United coming to town.