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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

RB Leipzig in hunt for Uefa Champions League knockout stage despite steep learning curve

Such has been their sharp rise, the German club's first season in any European competition has been at the highest level.

Timo Werner, like many of his teammates, is experiencing the Uefa Champions League for the first time. Bertrand Langlois / AFP
Timo Werner, like many of his teammates, is experiencing the Uefa Champions League for the first time. Bertrand Langlois / AFP

Every newcomer to the Uefa Champions League quickly learns new, often unexpected lessons.

There are the long journeys to unfamiliar places where the sights, the sounds and even the climate are distinct.

There is the extra workload, midweek fatigue and a crash-course in the science of squad rotation. With luck, there’s the moment when a novice suddenly feels a European coming-of-age.

RB Leipzig had that epiphany at the end of last month, with a stirring 4-1 win at Monaco that has kept alive their hope of a place in the knockout round.

The upstarts of the Bundesliga have risen so fast up their own domestic hierarchy that the Champions League came onto their calendar without time for much rehearsal.

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Leipzig - backed by wealthy multi-national corporation Red Bull - only reached the top flight of German football in 2016, so they have never played in the Europa League nor have they a history of Uefa Cup, or Cup Winners Cup, or even InterToto Cup adventures to look back on.

Leipzig, jeered across Germany by opposition supporters resentful of their generous patrons and fast-tracked climb, wear the badge of outsiders conspicuously.

On Wednesday night, their chance of a place in the last 16 of the European Cup is contingent on Porto dropping points at home to Monaco.

But Leipzig intend to give themselves their best chance and if that fails – a win at home to Besiktas would be enough if Porto do not win – at least to exit the competition with the dynamism they took to Monaco.

They struck four goals in the first half, and left Group G the most topsy-turvy of any in the round-robin phase of this season's competition. Monaco, semi-finalists last season, are anchored to bottom; Besiktas at the top and eyeing a best-ever points total for a Turkish club; while Porto, two times European champions, scuffle with the east German initiates for the remaining qualifying spot.

Within Leipzig, there is an admission they have displayed some naivety in their first European campaign. They failed to hold positions of advantage, letting a lead turn swiftly into a draw at home to Monaco, and 1-1 become a 3-1 defeat at Porto.

In Istanbul, meanwhile, they seemed overawed by the atmosphere, acutely so in the case of leading goalscorer Timo Werner, who asked to be substituted after barely half an hour of the 2-0 loss at Besiktas, complaining that so loud was the atmospheric noise it had caused him acute physical discomfort.

That was certainly an unusual injury, but it is a recognised medical condition, for which the club and the player sought expert advice and treatment, and learned that Werner’s high sensitivity to sound – and Besiktas’ arena is raucous when full – may have been connected to a blow to the head he received while playing for Germany in the Confederations Cup in July.

He had a period of recuperation, and, thankfully for his club and indeed his country, Werner appears back to his best. Indeed, after his two goals at Monaco – perhaps the quietest stadium in the Champions League – Leipzig manager Ralph Hassenhuttl rather pumped up the volume himself with his choice of words to praise Werner’s finishing. “In front of goal, Timo is a grenade,” Hassenhuttl said.

Werner was on a run of five goals in as many matches until Saturday’s trip to Hoffenheim, where Leipzig, second in the German table, looked very much like a team distracted, their minds on a major Champions League assignment four days later. They lost 4-0.

“It will have no bearing on the Besiktas game,” said Hassenhuttl, while Werner left Hoffenheim’s Rhein-Nacker Arena and immediately betrayed that his thoughts might be leaning towards more fabled places.

“The good thing in football is that another game comes around quickly, and we still have a chance of coming up against Real Madrid or Barcelona in the next round if we keep up our hopes of making it,” Werner said.

Besiktas, with their progress as a top seed already secured, have not brought a full strength team to Germany. Nor, because little rides on the outcome for them and because of ticket restrictions, will there be too many away supporters in the crowd. Werner will be pleased to not hear them.