"If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club," Simon Rolfes told Stats Perform.

Bayer Leverkusen had money to splash after Chelsea paid a club-record fee to prise German star Kai Havertz from BayArena at the start of 2020-21. His absence was supposed to leave a glaring hole in North Rhine-Westphalia and prompt a frantic search in the transfer market.

But sporting director Rolfes and Leverkusen had other ideas. Rather than use the money recouped in the blockbuster Havertz transfer, Die Werkself opted to look in their own backyard for a replacement – 18-year-old teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

Leverkusen's faith in youth and their clearly defined philosophy has served them well previously, and they're being rewarded once again by the club's latest wonderkid, who has put Havertz well and truly in the rear-view mirror as Europe's elite queue for his signature.

At home in the number 10 role behind a striker or even as a deep-lying playmaker, Wirtz can do it all on the pitch – as next opponents Bayern Munich may find out on Sunday.

Leverkusen prised Wirtz from Cologne in 2020. Dubbed "the best midfielder to come through the club in 30 years" by local newspaper Kolner Express, Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Liverpool were all circling after Wirtz captained boyhood team Cologne to Under-17 German Championship glory in 2019, but Leverkusen eventually won the race.

Rolfes had first watched Wirtz at the age of 13. He was immediately mesmerised by the Brauweiler-born sensation, who has firmly established himself in the Leverkusen XI, quickly becoming the new face of Die Werkself.

 

From his junior days, Wirtz has been great at exploiting gaps and creating space in midfield while churning out goalscoring chances with his devastating awareness. Not to mention his defence-splitting passing ability. Five years on and nothing has changed on the international stage.

"Extraordinary player," Rolfes told Stats Perform prior to the international break, after which Leverkusen now prepare to face champions Bayern in a top-of-the-table Bundesliga clash. "I saw him the first time when he was 13 and followed him all the time. Spoke with him before he moved to us, with the parents a lot of times and tried to convince them that it was the right step to come to us and accelerate his development. I and the whole club are very happy that he is with us. That's the interesting thing, I watched him the first time at 13 and he is still playing the same. 14,15, 16, always in that kind of style."

When a player breaks a record held by Havertz at Leverkusen, it is a sign to sit up and take notice.

Wirtz was swiftly thrust into the first team, becoming Leverkusen's youngest-ever debutant at the age of 17 years and 16 days, eclipsing Havertz's record, in last season's 4-1 rout of Werder Bremen in 2019-20. After a handful of appearances in the coronavirus-hit campaign, Wirtz played 29 Bundesliga games, which yielded five goals and as many assists in the post-Havertz era in 2020-21. In February 2021, Wirtz became the first player in the league's history to score five goals before celebrating his 18th birthday.

So, when it comes to comparing Wirtz to Havertz through their first 42 Bundesliga appearances with Leverkusen, how do they stack up against each other?

Wirtz has an equal split between goals and assists (10 each), averaging his 20 goal involvements once every 148 minutes across his top-flight career so far. That's quicker than Havertz managed at the same stage of his Bundesliga career, with his 16 goal involvements in his first 42 apps coming at an average of 165 minutes.

Wirtz also proved a shade more productive in front of goal, with an expected goals per 90 average of 0.16 compared to Havertz's 0.14, but the now-Chelsea forward was able to get more involved in the average game with 65 touches per 90 compared to Wirtz's 58 per 90.

"I wouldn't say they're similar. They're for sure similar in terms of extraordinary qualities and potential for really big careers," Rolfes said. "I would say at the end, Kai plays a little bit more forward and is very good in going deep with a lot of speed. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because he is so tall but he is incredibly fast. Very direct, fantastic shot with his left foot and a good header. With his height, a very good header of the ball.

"With Florian, I think from a positional sense he is a little bit deeper. More technique in small spaces I would say. Kai likes to use his speed. They are quite different. They unfortunately only played/trained half a year together. It would be nice to have them both together in the squad at the moment because one right foot, one left. They would fit very good together."

With so much attention from a very young age, it is easy for some players to get swept up amid the hype and interest. Not Wirtz.

Wirtz has continued to shatter records and dazzle in the Bundesliga. Against Mainz on matchday six of this season, the Germany international became the youngest player to score 10 goals in Germany’s top-flight, doing so 208 days younger than Lukas Podolski (18 years, 353 days for Cologne in 2004).

No player in the Bundesliga this season has more assists than Wirtz (five) through seven rounds.

With four league goals in just six appearances, he is already only one goal shy of matching last season's haul, despite an expected goals (xG) goal value of 1.0 – no other player has such a large difference between his goals and expected goals.

His nine goal involvements in this season's Bundesliga are only surpassed by Dortmund star Erling Haaland (10), while Wirtz has the best shot conversion rate (36.4 per cent) among all players with at least three goals in 2021-22.

As Wirtz goes from prospect to genuine star, it all comes down to his mindset.

"The attitude is very good. With players and we could see it with Kai Havertz, they know their quality. They are 18 and self-confident because they know about their quality. Special players have that – they can feel that, feel it directly on the pitch. Playing with other good players, they're able to handle it and adapt to the different speed of the game," said Rolfes.

"In that case, they are quite far [developed] and they know there's interest in them because also with 14, 15, 16 it's normal big clubs watched him play. With Florian and Kai, it's quite the same. They always know they’re interesting and extraordinary players."

In all competitions in 2021-22, Wirtz (11) is the only player in Europe's big-five leagues 18 or younger to be involved in seven or more goals, having already found the back of the net twice in the Europa League.

 

Wirtz has been involved in a goal across all competitions every 47 minutes so far this term – at least up until the international break, it was the best rate of all players in Europe's top five leagues with at least 500 minutes, ahead of Haaland (51 mins), Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (52 mins), Bayern talisman Robert Lewandowski (60 mins) and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah (65 mins).

"In the youth teams, the difference in the quality between him and others was much higher. The game in the youth is around them. Now, he also has a big influence on the game, but he has to position himself better to get the ball and use his quality. Players with extraordinary quality have the ability to find the right spaces but in professional teams they have to wait a little bit in their position and then use their quality," former Leverkusen midfielder Rolfes said. "Compared to the youth where they are doing everything."

It's a frightening thought when you remember Wirtz only celebrated his 18th birthday in May and consider how much growth there is to come from Leverkusen’s prized asset.

Despite being so young, Wirtz is already important in Leverkusen's attacking production – he's been involved in 26 open-play attacking sequences in the Bundesliga this season, with only two players at the club involved in more. Of those 26, 12 have come as the creator of the chance, which is more than any Leverkusen team-mate.

"He will improve year by year. Although he already has a high level. His biggest strength and you could see that in all the years in the youth team, is that he gives his best in each game," added Rolfes. "Doesn't matter where he was playing or which team-mates he was playing with. The first team, U19, U13 etc, he was always giving his best. That is a key element in his development that he is able to adapt at higher levels but he has ambition to always improve and you have to improve.

"Sometimes improvement is also a little bit about changing your game. For sure the opponents want to defend him and watch him, so improvement is sometimes changing a little bit. I'm totally convinced he will have a great career because he has the right mindset to develop. If he keeps that, he is 18 and young, it's a really young guy and he has strengthen his personality etc – that’s normal. We all know how we've been at 18 but if he keeps his mindset and development, he will have a fantastic career."

UEFA will not open a disciplinary case against Sparta Prague after finding insufficient evidence of discriminatory behaviour in their Europa League match with Rangers.

The game, won 1-0 by the Scottish champions, was originally due to be played behind closed doors following the racist abuse of Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni in August but around 10,000 school children and accompanying adults were allowed to attend.

The contest was marred by the booing of Rangers' black players, with Glen Kamara seemingly subjected to particularly vocal taunts.

Last March, UEFA ruled Kamara had been the victim of a racist slur from Ondrej Kudela in Rangers' fixture against Sparta's Czech rivals Slavia Prague.

However, following an investigation by a UEFA Ethics and Disciplinary Inspector, European football's governing body said no further action would be taken.

A statement confirmed: "In accordance with Article 31(4) of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations, a UEFA Ethics and Disciplinary Inspector was appointed to conduct a disciplinary investigation regarding potential discriminatory incidents which allegedly occurred during the 2021-22 UEFA Europa League group stage match between AC Sparta Prague and Rangers FC played on September 30, 2021.
 
"The investigation has now concluded that there was insufficient evidence of racism or discriminatory conduct at the match to warrant the opening of disciplinary proceedings against AC Sparta Prague."

After the game, Sparta issued a statement to insist any allegations of racism were unfounded.

"It is absolutely unbelievable that after a match we have to watch innocent children being attacked and face unfounded accusations of racism," the club said. 

"You are describing the behaviour of children incorrectly, arrogating to yourself the right to judge the expression of emotions of six-year-old children who have no idea what racism is. It's an impertinence."

"If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club," Simon Rolfes told Stats Perform.

Bayer Leverkusen had money to splash after Chelsea paid a club-record fee to prise German star Kai Havertz from BayArena at the start of 2020-21. His absence was supposed to leave a glaring hole in North Rhine-Westphalia and prompt a frantic search in the transfer market.

But sporting director Rolfes and Leverkusen had other ideas. Rather than use the money recouped in the blockbuster Havertz transfer, Die Werkself opted to look in their own backyard for a replacement – 18-year-old teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

Leverkusen's faith in youth and their clearly defined philosophy has served them well previously, and they're being rewarded once again by the club's latest wonderkid, who has put Havertz well and truly in the rear-view mirror as Europe's elite queue for his signature.

At home in the number 10 role behind a striker or even as a deep-lying playmaker, Wirtz can do it all on the pitch.

Leverkusen prised Wirtz from Cologne in 2020. Dubbed "the best midfielder to come through the club in 30 years" by local newspaper Kolner Express, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Liverpool were all circling after Wirtz captained boyhood team Cologne to Under-17 German Championship glory in 2019, but Leverkusen eventually won the race.

Rolfes had first watched Wirtz at the age of 13. He was immediately mesmerised by the Brauweiler-born sensation, who has firmly established himself in the Leverkusen XI, quickly becoming the new face of Die Werkself.

 

From his junior days, Wirtz has been great at exploiting gaps and creating space in midfield while churning out goalscoring chances with his devastating awareness. Not to mention his defence-splitting passing ability. Five years on and nothing has changed on the international stage.

"Extraordinary player," Rolfes told Stats Perform. "I saw him the first time when he was 13 and followed him all the time. Spoke with him before he moved to us, with the parents a lot of times and tried to convince them that it was the right step to come to us and accelerate his development. I and the whole club are very happy that he is with us. That's the interesting thing, I watched him the first time at 13 and he is still playing the same. 14,15, 16, always in that kind of style."

When a player breaks a record held by Kai at Leverkusen, it is a sign to stand up and take notice.

Wirtz was swiftly thrust into the first team, becoming Leverkusen's youngest-ever debutant at the age of 17 years and 16 days, eclipsing Havertz's record, in last season's 4-1 rout of Werder Bremen in 2019-20. After a handful of appearances in the coronavirus-hit campaign, Wirtz played 29 Bundesliga games, which yielded five goals and as many assists in the post-Havertz era in 2020-21. In February 2021, Wirtz became the first player in the league's history to score five goals before celebrating his 18th birthday.

So, when it comes to comparing Wirtz to Havertz through their first 42 Bundesliga appearances with Leverkusen, how do they stack up against each other?

Wirtz has an equal split between goals and assists (10 each), averaging his 20 goal involvements once every 148 minutes across his top-flight career so far. That's quicker than Havertz managed at the same stage of his Bundesliga career, with his 16 goal involvements in his first 42 apps coming at an average of 165 minutes.

Wirtz also proved a shade more productive in front of goal, with an expected goals per 90 average of 0.16 compared to Havertz's 0.14, but the now-Chelsea forward was able to get more involved in the average game with 65 touches per 90 compared to Wirtz's 58 per 90.

"I wouldn't say they're similar. They're for sure similar in terms of extraordinary qualities and potential for really big careers," Rolfes said. "I would say at the end, Kai plays a little bit more forward and is very good in going deep with a lot of speed. Sometimes it doesn’t look like it because he is so tall but he is incredibly fast. Very direct, fantastic shot with his left foot and a good header. With his height, a very good header of the ball.

"With Florian, I think from a positional sense he is a little bit deeper. More technique in small spaces I would say. Kai likes to use his speed. They are quite different. They unfortunately only played/trained half a year together. It would be nice to have them both together in the squad at the moment because one right foot, one left. They would fit very good together."

With so much attention from a very young age, it is easy for some players to get swept up amid the hype and interest. Not Wirtz.

Wirtz has continue to shatter records and dazzle in the Bundesliga. Against Mainz on matchday six of this season, the Germany international became the youngest player to score 10 goals in Germany’s top-flight, doing so 208 days younger than Lukas Podolski (18 years, 353 days for Cologne in 2004).

No player in the Bundesliga this season has more assists than Wirtz (five) through seven rounds.

With four league goals in just six appearances, he is already only one goal shy of matching last season's haul, despite an expected goals (xG) goal value of 1.0 – no other player has such a large difference between his goals and expected goals.

His nine goal involvements in this season's Bundesliga are only surpassed by Dortmund star Erling Haaland (10), while Wirtz has the best shot conversion rate (36.4 per cent) among all players with at least three goals in 2021-22.

As Wirtz goes from prospect to genuine star, it all comes down to his mindset.

"The attitude is very good. With players and we could see it with Kai Havertz, they know their quality. They are 18 and self-confident because they know about their quality. Special players have that – they can feel that, feel it directly on the pitch. Playing with other good players, they're able to handle it and adapt to the different speed of the game," said Rolfes.

"In that case, they are quite far [developed] and they know there's interest in them because also with 14, 15, 16 it's normal big clubs watched him play. With Florian and Kai, it's quite the same. They always know they’re interesting and extraordinary players."

In all competitions in 2021-22, Wirtz (11) is the only player in Europe's big-five leagues 18 or younger to be involved in seven or more goals, having already found the back of the net twice in the Europa League.

 

Wirtz has been involved in a goal across all competitions every 47 minutes so far this term – it is the best ratio of minutes per goal involvement of all players in Europe's top-five leagues with at least 500 minutes, ahead of Haaland (51 mins), Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (52 mins), Bayern talisman Robert Lewandowski (60 mins) and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah (65 mins).

"In the youth teams, the difference in the quality between him and others was much higher. The game in the youth is around them. Now, he also has a big influence on the game, but he has to position himself better to get the ball and use his quality. Players with extraordinary quality have the ability to find the right spaces but in professional teams they have to wait a little bit in their position and then use their quality," former Leverkusen midfielder Rolfes said. "Compared to the youth where they are doing everything."

It's a frightening thought when you remember Wirtz only celebrated his 18th birthday in May and how much growth there is to come from Leverkusen’s prized asset.

Despite being so young, Wirtz is already important in Leverkusen's attacking production – he's been involved in 26 open-play attacking sequences in the Bundesliga this season, with only two players at the club involved in more. Of those 26, 12 have come as the creator of the chance, which is more than any Leverkusen team-mate.

"He will improve year by year. Although he already has a high level. His biggest strength and you could see that in all the years in the youth team, is that he gives his best in each game," added Rolfes. "Doesn't matter where he was playing or which team-mates he was playing with. The first team, U19, U13 etc, he was always giving his best. That is a key element in his development that he is able to adapt at higher levels but he has ambition to always improve and you have to improve.

"Sometimes improvement is also a little bit about changing your game. For sure the opponents want to defend him and watch him, so improvement is sometimes changing a little bit. I'm totally convinced he will have a great career because he has the right mindset to develop. If he keeps that, he is 18 and young, it's a really young guy and he has strengthen his personality etc – that’s normal. We all know how we've been at 18 but if he keeps his mindset and development, he will have a fantastic career."

UEFA has launched an investigation into alleged "discriminatory incidents" in Sparta Prague's Europa League clash with Rangers.

The fixture, which the Scottish Premiership champions won 1-0, was originally due to be played behind closed doors following the racist abuse of Monaco midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni in August but around 10,000 school children and accompanying adults were allowed to attend.

The match last Thursday was marred by the booing of Rangers' black players, with Glen Kamara seemingly subjected to particularly vocal taunts.

Last March, UEFA ruled Kamara had been the victim of a racist slur from Ondrej Kudela in Rangers' fixture against Sparta's Czech rivals Slavia Prague.

European football's governing body said in a statement on Tuesday: "In accordance with Article 31(4) of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations, a UEFA Ethics and Disciplinary Inspector has been appointed to conduct a disciplinary investigation regarding potential discriminatory incidents allegedly occurring during the 2021/22 UEFA Europa League group stage match between AC Sparta Praha and Rangers FC played on 30 September 2021."

Following the fixture, Gers boss Steven Gerrard called for harsher punishments to tackle incidents of racism.

"Sadly, these things keep raising their head far too often and, unfortunately, the punishments are not severe enough," Gerrard said.

Sparta released a statement in response, claiming that the actions of the children watching had been misunderstood and that allegations of racism were wide of the mark.

"It is absolutely unbelievable that after a match we have to watch innocent children being attacked and face unfounded accusations of racism," the statement said. 

"You are describing the behaviour of children incorrectly, arrogating to yourself the right to judge the expression of emotions of six-year-old children who have no idea what racism is. It's an impertinence."

Steven Gerrard called for tougher punishments to tackle racism after Glen Kamara was booed during Rangers' 1-0 defeat against Sparta Prague in the Europa League.

The midfielder was the subject of what UEFA declared to be "racist behaviour" by Ondrej Kudela, who plays for neighbouring Slavia Prague in April, before being subjected to more reported abuse in Thursday's game.

The crowd was restricted to children and their chaperones after Sparta were sanctioned by UEFA for racially abusing Monaco's Aurelien Tchouameni, but Gerrard admitted he could hear the booing after watching a replay of the game.

"I'm fully aware now [of the booing] having watched the game back with audio and I'm actually surprised I wasn't aware of it during the game," Gerrard told reporters on Friday.

"Sadly, these things keep raising their head far too often and, unfortunately, the punishments are not severe enough."

Sparta responded with a statement in which they defended their young fans, insisting their actions had been misinterpreted while stating the match will be remembered positively in the club's history.

"It is absolutely unbelievable that after a match we have to watch innocent children being attacked and face unfounded accusations of racism," the statement said. "Insulting children on the internet and in the media is unacceptable, desperate and ridiculous.

"Stop attacking our children! Our club will proudly defend our children - our future and our pride. Slandering children on the internet is extremely cowardly.

"We are seeing unprecedented xenophobic statements against the Czech Republic, its citizens and even its children on social media.

"You are describing the behaviour of children incorrectly, arrogating to yourself the right to judge the expression of emotions of six-year-old children who have no idea what racism is. It's an impertinence.

"This match will go down in the club's history in a positive sense. We ask the representatives of Rangers to do their part to stop the xenophobic atmosphere directed towards our children, our beautiful country and its inhabitants."

Declan Rice and Said Benrahma were both on target as West Ham won their second successive Europa League fixture, beating Rapid Vienna 2-0 at the London Stadium.

Andriy Yarmolenko and Michail Antonio combined well to set Rice up for a simple, close-range finish in the 29th minute and Benrahma added gloss to the scoreline deep into stoppage time, though the Hammers could have won by an even greater margin.

West Ham manager David Moyes, who made seven changes to the team that snatched a late 2-1 win against Leeds United in the Premier League, saw his men dominate an out-of-sorts Rapid.

The victory sees the London club sit on top of Group H, three points clear of Dinamo Zagreb and Genk.

West Ham started brightly and struck the woodwork twice inside the opening 27 minutes, with Rice glancing Aaron Cresswell's free-kick off one post and Craig Dawson heading the left-back's corner against the other.

Just two minutes after the second of those chances, the Hammers were ahead. Yarmolenko picked out Antonio's run into the box with a ball over the top and the forward squared across goal to Rice, who tapped into an empty net.

Ben Johnson thought he had given a penalty away when Marco Grull went down in the box in the 70th minute, but after a VAR check that lasted nearly three minutes, the original decision was overturned.

Substitute Jarrod Bowen had a golden opportunity to double the advantage with nine minutes of normal time to play, but somehow blasted over after rounding the goalkeeper.

The Hammers' dominance was finally rewarded with a second goal four minutes into added time, however, as Benrahma skipped inside his marker and curled a low shot into the corner to finish the game with a flourish.

Celtic suffered their second successive Europa League defeat this season as they were comprehensively beaten 4-0 by Bayer Leverkusen.

First-half goals from Piero Hincapie and Florian Wirtz put the Bundesliga side in complete control against Ange Postecoglou's side in the Group G clash at Celtic Park.

Lucas Alario added a third from the penalty spot after the break as Gerardo Seoane's side followed up their opening victory over Ferencvaros, while substitute Amine Adli completed the rout with a thumping strike deep into stoppage time.

The result means Celtic were handed an 11th reverse in their last 18 home European matches, while this was the 16th time in 25 outings they have lost to German opposition.

Both sides had chances to break the deadlock during a blistering start to the contest.

Alario was denied by the offside flag inside the opening minute, then moments later a magnificent last-ditch intervention from Jonathan Tah prevented Kyogo Furuhashi from sliding into an empty net at the other end.

Leverkusen had Lukas Hradecky to thank for a couple of important touches in quick succession, the goalkeeper denying Furuhashi and Carl Starfelt.

However, the visitors broke the deadlock in the 25th minute. An untimely slip from David Turnbull allowed Mitchel Bakker to get into the penalty area, where he cut the ball back for Hincapie to turn home.

The lead was doubled following a quick-fire counter 10 minutes later, with Paulinho picking out an unmarked Wirtz to score his sixth goal in as many games for his club.

Hradecky came to Leverkusen's rescue again with saves to thwart Furuhashi and Jota at the start of the second half, but the visitors put the game to bed in the 58th minute.

Alario calmly sent Joe Hart the wrong way from the spot after Cameron Carter-Vickers was deemed to have blocked Paulinho's shot with his arm.

Adli rounded out the scoring in the fourth minute of stoppage time, rifling into the roof of the net after being set up fellow replacement Nadiem Amiri, capping a rapid counter.

Mahir Emreli's first-half strike edged Legia Warsaw to a 1-0 win over Leicester City in Thursday's Europa League clash.

Emreli drilled home what proved to be the winner at the Polish Army Stadium after 31 minutes, with the visitors having struggled to settle defensively in the opening stages of the game.

Ayoze Perez, who spurned the best first-half chance to equalise, saw his close-range finish ruled out after the interval and Jannik Vestergaard almost scored, but Brendan Rodgers' side failed to find an equaliser.

Leicester now have just one point after their opening two games, while Legia sit at the summit after back-to-back wins in Group C.

Andre Martins curled the first chance of the contest into Kasper Schmeichel's hands following timid defending from Caglar Soyuncu, the centre-back then allowing Bartosz Slisz to sneak in and tee up Emreli, who wastefully blasted over from close range.

However, the forward made no mistake with his next opportunity. Having outmuscled Daniel Amartey, Emreli fired in a left-footed strike across Schmeichel, the ball going in off the far post.

Having dragged a glorious chance wide before the break, Perez thought he had equalised in the second half as he flicked home from Youri Tielemans' corner, only for Amartey to be adjudged to have fouled Ihor Kharatin in the build-up.

Patson Daka's header then forced Cezary Miszta into a smart save before Vestergaard inexplicably managed to head into the Legia goalkeeper's midriff from point-blank range.

Leicester persisted in search of a late leveller, with Daka hesitating in front of goal as he struggled to sort his feet.

Substitute James Maddison offered a late scare as he saw a miscued left-footed strike cleared off the line by Mateusz Wieteska, but Legia managed to cling on to claim all three points.

Ten-man Rangers fell to a second straight defeat to begin their Europa League campaign as they went down 1-0 to Sparta Prague at Generali Arena. 

The Gers went unbeaten on their travels in this competition last season but failed to respond in the Czech capital on Thursday after David Hancko headed Sparta into a first-half lead. 

Jakub Pesek missed an open goal early in the second period but Rangers, who lost 2-0 to Lyon in their opening game, had Glen Kamara sent off 16 minutes from time and were unable to get off the mark in Group A. 

The defeat leaves Steven Gerrard's side bottom of the standings, six points off leaders Lyon – who beat Brondby 3-0 – and four adrift of Sparta in the other qualification spot. 

Sparta's stalemate with Brondby two weeks ago had the lowest expected goals (0.8) of any matchday-one fixture, but Pesek and Martin Minchev forced Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor into a couple of good saves inside the opening 25 minutes. 

Hancko found a way through for Sparta soon after with a flicked header that went in off the far post despite McGregor's attempt to claw the ball away before it was awarded by goal-line technology. 

The hosts wasted a huge chance to double their tally 22 seconds into the second half when Adam Hlozek broke free and teed up Pesek for what looked like being a simple finish, only for the winger to blast the ball against the crossbar with the goal gaping. 

After surviving a scare less than a minute later when Fashion Sakala's close-range finish was ruled out for offside, Sparta were again denied by McGregor as he used his feet to keep out Lukas Haraslin from a one-on-one. 

That ensured Rangers still had some hope of at least snatching a point, but Kamara was shown a second yellow for a raised arm on Michal Sacek and they were unable to muster any further clear-cut openings. 

After another busy off-season at Bayer Leverkusen, many would have tipped a slow start with a new face in the dugout.

With Peter Bosz relieved of his duties, Simon Rolfes and Leverkusen turned to Gerardo Seoane on the back of three consecutive Swiss Super League titles at the helm of Young Boys.

Star winger Leon Bailey also headlined the departures at BayArena, a year on from Kai Havertz's big-money move to Chelsea. Factor in major international tournaments prior to the 2021-22 campaign – Euro 2020, the Copa America and the Olympic Games – and it made for a challenging pre-season.

But Leverkusen have hit the ground running in the Bundesliga – a 4-0 rout of Borussia Monchengladbach and wins over Augsburg (4-1), Stuttgart (3-1) and Mainz (1-0) helping Die Werkself to second place through six games, three points behind leaders and champions Bayern Munich.

Leverkusen sporting director Rolfes told Stats Perform: "We're happy with the start of the season because it was a difficult summer for us but also the other teams who have a lot of international players. This summer with the Copa America, Euros, Olympic Games... there were a lot of players from us involved. A player from us won the Copa America and Olympics, so only the Euros we missed.

"That's why the pre-season was really difficult. The players step in, week by week, and I think one week before the start of the season, we had our final squad together. The transfer market due to coronavirus was also very different and late. That's why I'm very happy. We had good opponents."

"We were not happy with the last season," said Rolfes, whose Leverkusen finished sixth in 2020-21 while losing in the DFB-Pokal last 16 and Europa League round of 32. "A very good start but the end was difficult. We reached international competition okay, but we are ambitious and want more this season. You can imagine the Champions League is a big goal but also the DFB-Pokal and Europa League to go further.

"What's very important for our club is development. One thing is performance and also the result at the end of the season, but development is very important. Develop the players, make them better. Then we have the chance to also perform today in the best way. We have a lot of young players – we want to develop them to their best level. That's also good for the performance today."

 

Seoane's 13 points after six Bundesliga matches represent the best record of any Leverkusen head coach since Sami Hyypia (15) in 2013. For the North Rhine-Westphalia outfit, it is their best start to a top-flight season since 2019-20 (also 13), while they have only scored more goals after six matches in 2008-09 (18) than in the current campaign (16).

Leverkusen have exceeded their expected goals (xG) tally by almost eight goals this Bundesliga campaign – 7.7 (16 goals at 8.3 xG), a league best.

"One important point is football knowledge," Rolfes replied when asked what attracted Leverkusen to 42-year-old Swiss coach Seoane. "Also the leadership, that's very interesting. The leadership of the group as a head coach is very important. If you're in training, the assistant coaches can do things. If you don't feel so comfortable or don't have so many qualities, you can find the right team.

"The leadership as a head coach, you must have. That's a big strength, besides the football knowledge he has. He speaks six different languages – very good for an international squad to speak with the players in their language. That helps a lot to get the right connection to take them on their way and development."

Under Seoane, Leverkusen play a more patient brand of football, allowing their opposition more time on the ball in the Bundesliga rather than consistently pressing high up the field.

Through the first six games last season, Leverkusen allowed 11.1 passes per defensive action, compared to 12.2 with Seoane in charge, as Leverkusen look to instead create counter-attacks from deeper positions – their averaging starting distance at 38.6 metres from their own goal, compared to 42.2m previously. Their 17 direct attacks this term dwarf last year's six at the same stage.

Leverkusen recorded 8.7 high turnovers per match through six rounds last season, compared to 5.3 this time around, but they have scored four goals from such situations already in the Bundesliga – at least twice as many as any other side and more than any other team in Europe's top five leagues in 2021-22. They actually had fewer goals (three) from high turnovers after six games last time out, proving more ruthless this term.

Still, Leverkusen's philosophy remains the same, despite a new coach and altered approach, and it will continue to be the case with Seoane and beyond under Rolfes.

"We choose players, signing as a club," Rolfes said as he discussed the need to adopt a clear vision, instead of changing philosophy with every coach. "We sign the players for a specific style to get the most out of the squad, the player and to develop them in the best way. If you play in the totally other direction than you want to develop the players, you will not succeed. That's important to have a clear vision as a club. How you want to play and then choose the right coach in the best case.

"Every head coach of a pro team has their specific style. That's not the problem, but the main direction has to be clear. That's my task at the end to choose the right coach for the main direction. And then, the individual approach or quality of the coach, it's important you get something fresh in the club, team. The main direction is important and the club has to define the vision."

Leverkusen are one of Germany's biggest clubs, but not since the 1993 DFB-Pokal have they celebrated silverware.

They have come close on numerous occasions in the Bundesliga – runners-up in 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2001-02 and 2010-11 – while they also reached the 2001-02 Champions League final, succumbing to Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane's iconic volley in Glasgow. There were Pokal final appearances in 2001-02, 2008-09 and 2019-20, too.

But an exciting and entertaining Leverkusen, even in the post-Havertz era, are on the right track amid Bayern's domestic and European dominance.

And that is thanks to teenage sensation Florian Wirtz.

The 18-year-old prodigy has continued to shine, filling the huge void left by countryman Havertz, amid rave reviews from across Europe.

Wirtz, who was prised from boyhood club Cologne last year, is the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 10 goals.

Leverkusen's Wirtz has already been directly involved in eight Bundesliga goals (four goals, four assists) in 292 minutes across the first six matchdays in 2021-22. Only Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland has had more direct goal involvements this term than the teenager.

Since Opta's detailed data collection began in 2004-05, only Patrick Helmes in 2008-09 and Stefan Kiessling in 2013-14 had previously registered as many direct goal involvements for Leverkusen after the first six matches to a Bundesliga season

Setting the standard across Europe, the new face of Leverkusen averages 37 minutes per goal involvement, which ranks best among players in the top five leagues (minimum 100 minutes played), ahead of Madrid superstar Karim Benzema (41 minutes). The 34-year-old Frenchman is the only one of those players to have exceeded his xG by a larger margin (4.8) than Wirtz (3.2) this season.

Already capped three times at international level, Wirtz has scored in four straight games, including Leverkusen's Europa League win against Ferencvaros on matchday one.

 

As Wirtz soars to new heights, Leverkusen are reaping the rewards of a unified philosophy and their faith in the midfielder.

"I think it's a real good example of how the club is working and how the club is thinking," Rolfes, who made almost 400 appearances for Leverkusen between 2005 and 2015, said. "The situation with Kai and Florian. Florian was here or came in the winter [of 2020] and made eight appearances after the lockdown with the first team. Then at the end of the [2019-20] season, Kai went to Chelsea.

"For sure, we got a lot of money for Kai, but we decided to focus on Florian Wirtz for the number 10 position. We don't sign any player as a replacement for Kai. For sure, we had some money to spend on an experienced player in the number 10 position, but we didn't do that. We said okay, the young guy will be the future and has the potential to replace or play very good in that position. We have him already in the club, so we trust him and try to develop him. That's why we sign players in other positions, where we needed improvement.

"That was a big sign for the player and for the chance you have as a young player in Leverkusen. If you have the ambition and quality, we count on you and give you the chance to develop. With development, there is also performance. That's why it's a great story for Florian but also for us as a club."

Wirtz's exploits have not gone unnoticed, however, with Bayern reportedly trying to sign the Germany international, while the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have also been linked.

But Leverkusen have no plans to sell as Rolfes – who first watched Wirtz as a 13-year-old – added: "He has a long contract until 2026. We do not have to sell players early. We want to develop him, develop our team and club with him.

"So, there are rumours, okay. You cannot avoid that, but it's not our goal to sell him. The players at one time or point in their career make the next step to world-class level, that's okay for us, but not too early. He is a really young player. That was also with Kai – he was also extraordinary and some years with us and then maybe there's the next step. But not too early.

In February, Leverkusen extended their partnership with Stats Perform for the use of Edge Analysis – the most sophisticated football match preparation tool available.

Powered by tracking and event data, Edge Analysis applies unique AI models to unlock objective, dynamic and predictive insights to enhance pre and post-match analysis processes, delivering unique performance insights on all upcoming opponents. The platform uses over 100 AI-driven KPIs to deliver eight unique patented AI models, delivering objective insights within seconds, all linked to video.

"Data/sport technology is very important for us because I think there's huge potential in the future," Rolfes said of the deal. "Data will be better and better because the cameras/GPS tracking provides more precise data.

"We have now not only data in the computer and no one has the time to analyse it, we have the tools with AI, and find the right KPIs for you. That's very important for the match preparation and for the scouting process to be fast, really precise. That's why we invest in that topic here. That's through partnership and investing in our staff to get knowledge, to develop because, at the moment, we are only at the beginning. That's why you have to invest, to be a pioneer or leader in that topic."

Kelechi Iheanacho will miss Leicester City's Europa League match with Legia Warsaw on Thursday after he was denied entry to Poland by border authorities.

Manager Brendan Rodgers said there was an issue with the striker's documentation, which meant he was not allowed into the country.

The news was an unexpected blow for the Foxes, with Iheanacho having two goals and two assists in nine appearances in all competitions this season, a tally bettered only by Jamie Vardy (five goals and one assist).

"We've had an issue with Kelechi," Rodgers said on Wednesday. "His documentation coming into the country wasn't sufficient, so unfortunately he isn't available to play, which is a shame because he would have played in the game.

"He will be unavailable for the game. The paperwork didn't allow him into the country. It's unfortunate, but we'll have to look into that when we get back."

Leicester will also be without the suspended Wilfred Ndidi against Legia, while centre-back Jonny Evans remains sidelined with a foot injury.

The Premier League side drew 2-2 with Napoli in their opening group game, while Legia won 1-0 at Spartak Moscow.

This will be the third English side Legia have faced in European competition. They were knocked out of the Cup Winners' Cup in 1990-91 by Manchester United before taking four points from Blackburn Rovers in the Champions League group stages in 1995-96.

Nine men were arrested following clashes between Leicester City and Napoli fans ahead of Thursday's Europa League game at the King Power Stadium. 

Trouble flared both in and outside the ground, with eight of those arrested by Leicestershire Police identified as fans of Serie A club Napoli.  

It was also confirmed on Friday that a man from Leicester was detained on suspicion of violent disorder.

"Nine men were arrested yesterday evening (Thursday, September 16) following a report of football-related violence in Leicester," a Leicestershire Police statement said. 

"Shortly before 6pm, police received a report of a fight taking place in Millstone Lane involving fans of Napoli and Leicester City. 

"Eight men, identified as Napoli fans, were arrested at the scene in connection with the incident. Following further enquiries, a 27-year-old man from Leicester was later arrested on suspicion of violent disorder. 

"All men remain in custody at this time. 

"Prior to the match taking place, a report was received that a taxi driver had been racially abused. A 39-year-old man from Italy was subsequently arrested on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence. He has been dealt with by way of a community resolution." 

Leicester and Napoli fans also threw objects at each other towards the end of a game that finished 2-2. 

West Ham United manager David Moyes is not getting carried away despite his side becoming the first side in 14 group stage matches to win away to Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League.

The Hammers won 2-0 over the Croatian champions on Thursday after goals from Michail Antonio and Declan Rice, marking the club's return to Europe for the first time since 2016.

The victory comes on the back of an unbeaten start to the Premier League season for Moyes' side, who are eighth with eight points from four games.

"Coming away from home in Europe to Zagreb, which we probably see as being one of the hardest away trips, you have to say that it's a great job for the first time in a while that we've been [on this stage] and the players have done really well," Moyes said.

"Let's not get carried away, we've played one game in the group and there will be some really big sides that come into this competition once we get after Christmas time.

"That's why I keep using the term in my interviews: 'Let's see if we can have European football after Christmas'. That's what we want to do.

"We need to manage the group. Tonight we tried to manage a few of the players, and give a few opportunities as well to get players in the side and get them match fit to play.

"I thought all the players did a really good job tonight."

Moyes had special praise for Antonio, who has started the season in strong form, netting four league goals along with his Europa strike.

"Michail showed his qualities to get on the end of the chance for his goal and I was really pleased with him tonight," he said.

"You want varied goals, and he picks up on a bad back pass and it's his speed which can get him there. It was a really good goal and his play generally tonight was good.

"I like how he played and lots of the things he done, we just missed making more opportunities and we should have."

The Hammers take on Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday, although Antonio will miss due to suspension.

Jonny Evans may have suffered a fresh injury setback with Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers revealing he will need to be assessed.

Evans returned to the Leicester starting line-up for Thursday's 2-2 draw with Napoli in the Europa League after a foot injury but was replaced at half-time.

The Northern Irishman had returned competitively for the first time since the FA Cup victory in May as a substitute in Saturday's 1-0 home loss to Manchester City.

Rodgers would not elaborate on the specifics of the injury but admitted Evans was in doubt for Sunday's Premier League clash with Brighton.

"It probably will do," Rodgers said when asked if the issue will affect Evans' availability.

"I felt he was struggling to push off, so we’ll see how he is in next 24-48 hours."

The former Manchester United defender made 28 league appearances last season for the Foxes.

Leicester had been leading 2-0 against Napoli after goals from Ayoze Perez and Harvey Barnes, before Victor Osimhen's late double earned the visitors a point.

Wilfred Ndidi was shown a second yellow card in stoppage time to compound a disappointing end to the game for Leicester.

“We’re obviously disappointed we didn’t win the game," Rodgers said. "We were in a great position, but we were playing against a really experienced team and we just couldn’t see it through. We’ll learn from that.

“I said to the players afterwards, there was so many good things in the game, but we’ve got to keep the ball better because by the end, when you don’t have the ball so much and you’re chasing the game, you can tire that little bit.

“We had some players getting their first 90 minutes of the season as well, and then obviously, their big striker [Osimhen], who’s £70-odd-million, so you can see his quality, and he gets his two goals.

“Overall, if you can’t win it, even though we were in a good position, you make sure you don’t lose it and the point is a start for us. Now, we’ve got another nine or 10 to go.”

Steven Gerrard's 50th European match as a manager ended in defeat as Rangers were beaten 2-0 by Lyon in their Europa League opener.

Having reached the last 16 in each of the previous two Europa League campaigns, Rangers were looking to make home advantage count against what look set to be their toughest rivals in Group A.

But Lyon – whose previous European match was a Champions League semi-final defeat to Bayern Munich in 2020 – had too much quality on Thursday.

Karl Toko Ekambi's 23rd-minute stunner put Lyon ahead, with James Tavernier's own goal condemning Rangers to their first ever Europa League group stage defeat at Ibrox.

Connor Goldson could easily have been dismissed for a reckless challenge on Toko Ekambi in the 13th minute as Lyon settled quicker, though the visiting forward showed no signs of being hindered with an exceptional opener.

Having been given time to approach the area, Toko Ekambi fooled John Lundstram with some fine footwork before curling a sublime finish across Allan McGregor and into the bottom-right corner.

Joe Aribo stinging the palms of Anthony Lopes sparked the home crowd into life, and Lundstram almost atoned for his part in Lyon's opener with a low strike that flashed inches wide.

Lopes had to be at his best to keep Ryan Kent, though Islam Slimani might have put Lyon 2-0 up on the stroke of half-time had he connected with Malo Gusto's cross.

Yet Lyon struck again early in the second half. Rangers were cut open by Lucas Paqueta's pass and though Slimani's effort was blocked, the rebound bounced in off the unfortunate Tavernier.

Tavernier was inches away from dragging Rangers back into it with a superb free-kick, only for the post to come to Lyon's rescue as Gerrard's milestone match in Europe proved a disappointing one.

What does it mean? Ibrox no fortress for Rangers

Of his 50 European matches in charge, Gerrard has won 25, drawn 16 and lost nine, with his team conceding 48 times in total.

Rangers had never lost a Europa League group game at Ibrox before Thursday's defeat, though including qualifiers, they have now lost three of their past four home matches in European competition, and Gerrard will need to find a way to turn that around if they are to mount a challenge in this tournament.

Toko Ekambi's quality shines through

With Memphis Depay now at Barcelona, Toko Ekambi – who scored 14 Ligue 1 goals last season – has the chance to assert himself as a major threat for Lyon this season.

He had failed to score in his five Ligue 1 appearances prior to the trip to Glasgow, but his finish – from one of his two attempts – was a sign of the quality the former Villarreal forward has in his locker. It could well kick-start his campaign.

Goldson caught cold

Just back from injury, Goldson looked way off the pace at the centre of Rangers' defence, with his early booking for a lunge on Toko Ekambi limiting his impact even further. 

He was still typically combative, winning possession back on seven occasions – a joint team-high – but it often looked as though Slimani had the beating of him.

What's next?

Rangers are back at Ibrox on Sunday, hosting Motherwell, while Lyon face the small task of an away trip to Paris Saint-Germain in their next Ligue 1 outing.

Page 1 of 16
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.