Just deal with the first half. That may, and arguably should, have been Eintracht Frankfurt’s plan going into Friday night. The last time they’d played Leverkusen, they had begun with hope and ended humiliated. Eintracht’s trip to BayArena was set between the two legs of their Europa League semi-final with Chelsea, the third-from-last Bundesliga game of the season and with the team having the chance of a Champions League place in their own hands.
It was, ultimately, the moment in which it became abundantly clear that Eintracht’s tank had pretty much run dry. After 36 minutes in Leverkusen they were 6-1 down, shell-shocked and bereft. That ended up as the final score as they zombie-marched through the remainder of the game – as an almost equally-stunned home side did as well to an extent – and even though they ended that Sunday afternoon still in fourth place, it felt as if a fat wedge of possibility had been left there. They still managed, improbably, to pull a heroic performance out from somewhere for the second leg with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and it was agonisingly close to being enough to get them to the Baku final. They fell to the Blues on penalties in the end, and that used up the last few drips of fuel Adi Hütter and his team had.
Eintracht ended 2018-19 as they had begun it in the DFL-Supercup, being absolutely flamed by Bayern and their former boss Niko Kovac. Only Mainz’s late surge against Hoffenheim, scoring three times in the closing ten minutes, enabled the most fun team in the Europa League the privilege of a return to the competition, beginning in July’s second qualifying round, after hanging on to seventh place. The club’s fans are a special breed, grateful for the journey as much as they are the destination, so recriminations for missing out on the top four were strictly limited.
When footballers and coaches say that they’re never interested in revenge, though, they’re fibbing. On Friday night, Eintracht’s will to put that first half horror show of five months back behind them couldn’t have been clearer. Eintracht tore into the game, which was only three-and-a-half minutes old when Danny da Costa’s through pass revealed their intentions. Open them up like they opened us. The ball trimmed Leverkusen’s rearguard in two and Gonçalo Paciência cruised on to that perfect transmission, holding off the floundering Aleksandar Dragovic before sweeping home.
It got better for Eintracht, with Paciência scoring a second from the spot. “The first half was definitely our best of the season so far,” Hütter beamed after the game, and after his side had toughed out a more difficult second half before Bas Dost’s wonderfully, typically scruffy third sealed the points. The script was a well-worn one for Frankfurt, with the front men making the magic happen but the detail of the difference is key. It’s not just the result for the BayArena that has flipped in the last few months.
The front three that made Eintracht such an essential watch last season are all gone – Sébastien Haller to West Ham, Luka Jovic to Real Madrid and Ante Rebic went late in the window to Milan, in a swap which brought Portugal’s André Silva back in return. It’s hard to think of a more different forward trio to Haller, Jovic and Rebic than Paciência, Silva and Dost (not least due to the fact that Hütter seems disinclined to play all three at the same time). Paciência comes closest of the three to filling the void of what Haller’s all-round game provided, but the comparison (not least in terms of quality) feels a bit stretched. Yet for now, the new trio are filling their boots in a similar way to their predecessors. They have 11 of Eintracht’s 14 Bundesliga goals to date between them.
Whether Hütter sees them as a three is a different question. The click between Paciência and Dost, incidentally, might not even have got to work on Leverkusen had the former’s compatriot Silva not been a late pull out with a foot problem. The assumption, on the completion of the transfer window, would have been that Dost and Silva would start with supplementary help from Filip Kostic.
The Kostic part of the equation is right. His performance on the left against Leverkusen was of such verve and ferocity that Mitchell Weiser, charged with taking care of him by Peter Bosz, was hooked after half-an-hour. Yet as Dost has been gradually blooded into Hütter’s system since returning to the Bundesliga from Portugal, he and Silva have fitted around the man who was back-up last term. Paciência has blossomed.
A graduate of the Porto academy like his father Domingos, it feels like this is Paciência’s time. At 25, he is no longer one for the future, but one that needs to produce now. He always had big shoes to fill. Domingos, a key part of Sir Bobby Robson’s conquering Porto sides of the mid-90s, scored 131 goals for the club and won seven league titles while doing it. “At home, they always want to talk to my father, not me,” he noted with a smile recently. In Germany, where Domingos’ legend is less noted, Paciência junior seems to be off the leash. At Porto, he was always destined to be compared with what went before. It’s significant that his best spell back home was in a productive half-season loan with the more modest Vitória Setúbal.
Now, he’s ready. Paciência is becoming a tremendous focal point for Hütter’s team. That Dost had his best game for the club so far, with Paciência doing his stuff, was surely no coincidence. On top of that, the Portuguese has already matched his best-ever goal tally for a league season – five, which underlines how peripatetic and sometimes frustrating his first-team career to date has been – with the promise of more to come. Eintracht fans might not have imagined their front three looking like this but for now, it looks pretty good.
• Eintracht are in the mix with a clutch of other teams, with only two points separating the top nine. Borussia Mönchengladbach remain top despite losing at Dortmund. Marco Reus, inevitably, scored the winner against his own club while Thorgan Hazard (who created the goal) had his best BVB game yet against his former club – which he needed to, with Jadon Sancho left out for returning late from international duty.
• It was another strange afternoon for Bayern, who conceded in the first and last minute at Augsburg to let further points slip in a 2-2 draw. Manuel Neuer, one of the few to speak post-game in a tense atmosphere, might be more busy in the coming weeks after the devastating news that their best defender Niklas Süle ruptured his ACL in the game.