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Jonathan Tah after his winning goal

Photo: Wolfgang Rattay / REUTERS

Granit Xhaka took a run, then jumped off. A split second later he found himself in the arms of Jonathan Tah. Because Cup goalkeeper Matěj Kovář was shaking his shoulders from behind, Tah almost lost his balance. But he didn't fall. Then he disappeared between his teammates, all of whom wanted to give their hearts to their hero.

Tah, 27, is Leverkusen's defense chief and scoring goals is not one of his most urgent tasks. But he still demonstrates great skill at it with some regularity. The same happened this time: In the quarter-finals of the DFB Cup against VfB Stuttgart, the 90th minute was running when Tah scored the 3-2 (0-1) winning goal with a header.

He often had to describe the scene that led to his sixth goal of the season - he scored four times in the league and twice in the cup: "Flo played an outstanding ball and then I just nodded it in." Flo, of course it was Florian Wirtz, 20, who played poorly at first and then impressively. And the assist for Tah actually wasn't bad. Wirtz lifted the ball once across the penalty area, from left to right, and there stood Tah. Wirtz had previously prepared Amine Adli's goal (66th minute), which was worth seeing.

That evening, Tah and Wirtz took on two of the leading roles in a Leverkusen schmonzette that could have been a tragedy. Not much was missing. Bayer was behind twice, equalized twice - it was hard work, an unusual sight. This season, Leverkusen has almost perfected the control of the ball and the search and finding of spaces to play into. They don't just push the ball through the team, they have a plan. To get forward with flat passes through the center, they form triangles and sometimes squares, only to suddenly shift to the left or to the right. But the surprising element was missing for a long time against Stuttgart.

Coach Xabi Alonso, 42, also observed this. When Tah went for the header that meant the decision, Alonso twitched in his coaching zone as if he wanted to heave the ball into the net himself. He later said: “Sometimes we win with structure, with control. Today we won with our hearts.«

Always late goals

The heart has recently decided a few games for Leverkusen. They are specialists there for late goals. They managed this twice in January, in Augsburg (winning goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time) and a week later in Leipzig (90+1). And now again. “That’s what defines us,” said Tah, who is also captain in Leverkusen. You have recently experienced that there are days when using the usual means does not lead to the usual success. But then there is still faith. »We are convinced that we can still win such games. That feels good."

This is one of the reasons why the club is still unbeaten after 30 competitive games this season and can dream of titles. The semi-finals of the DFB Cup at the beginning of April will be against Fortuna Düsseldorf, 1. FC Kaiserslautern or the winner of the game 1. FC Saarbrücken against Borussia Mönchengladbach. Leverkusen is the favorite, regardless of the opponent. Bayer is also in the round of 16 of the Europa League. And they could become champions too.

That's a lot for a club that has come second so often that it was called vice-president at one point.

Alonso praises the opponent

Stuttgart coach Sebastian Hoeneß, 41, will not win the title, at least this season. He still saw a good performance from his team. He said: »We wanted to make Leverkusen think. We succeeded.” VfB had already kept up with Bayer in the Bundesliga in December. Stuttgart played a brilliant first half - but in the end had to settle for a point. This time too, VfB was good, but not good enough. Goals from Waldemar Anton (11th) and Chris Führich (58th) were not enough to advance. Because at some point Bayer Leverkusen had ideas, found space and used it. Because in addition to Tah and Adli, Robert Andrich (50th) also scored.

Alonso said he had not played against a better opponent in Leverkusen this season. It was a compliment to the defeated opponent, although in this case the location was important. Of course, Leverkusen also played against Bayern in the first half of the season, but that was in Munich. On Saturday the record champions are guests in the Rhineland, it is the top game of the Bundesliga: table leaders Leverkusen (52 points) welcome their pursuers (50). It is of course possible that Alonso will reconsider his judgment afterwards. But that's not certain, FC Bayern has had better phases.

When Alonso was not yet a coach, but a strategist in midfield, he also played in Munich for three years. He knows his way around the club. Winning, said Alonso, is part of FC Bayern's DNA. As a coach, he works to add a winning mentality to Leverkusen's DNA. He can count games like the one against Stuttgart as a success.