Preview: High-speed, high-scoring Openda and Leipzig aim to end Leverkusen's unbeaten run

AP , Friday 19 Jan 2024

Confidence is the key ingredient in Loïs Openda's recipe for becoming one of soccer's global superstars.

Young Boys Ulisses Garcia, centre, challenges for the ball with Leipzig s Nicolas Seiwald during the group G Champions League soccer match between RB Leipzig and Young Boys Bern at the Red Bull arena stadium in Leipzig, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. AP


Talent, speed and boundless self-belief have set Leipzig's Belgian striker on a rapid rise through European soccer. As a child, Openda once dreamed of playing like Chelsea great Didier Drogba — now the 23-year-old has set his sights on being even better.

“I was always, always looking at Drogba. I wanted to play like him, I wanted to be one day a top, top striker like him," Openda said Wednesday. "Why not be better than him? I have to work on that.”

Openda is playing in his third different country in as many seasons, and says his confidence has helped him to adapt almost immediately in each. “It’s really important for me to feel good and to feel like I am at home, and then my job is just to play football like I like, to enjoy (it) on the pitch. If everything is top around me, I think I can do just what I’m doing now, and I know that I can for sure do more.”

Openda's 15 goals for Leipzig this season include three in two games in the Champions League against Manchester City. That's more than any other player has managed against the European champion this season.

Next up on Saturday is German league leader Bayer Leverkusen and its coach Xabi Alonso. They have not lost any of their 26 games in all competitions this season. It's an impressive achievement but it also makes Leverkusen a target.

“It will not be easy for them, because it’s now in our stadium, we are ready," Openda said. "We are prepared for this game and also we prepare some tactics about the game on Saturday and for sure we will be ready for this top game. It’s really important for us to have the three points.”

Leverkusen goes into the match with a four-point lead over second-place Bayern Munich, which has one more game to play. Leipzig is fourth in a season that's been big on promise but short on consistency. It's 12 points behind Leverkusen.

Leipzig began its campaign with a 3-0 rout of Bayern and its then-new signing Harry Kane in the German Super Cup, but followed it with a 3-2 loss at Leverkusen. Leipzig had more than enough chances to win against Eintracht Frankfurt last week but lost 1-0 to a team with only one shot on target.

At Leipzig, Openda is part of an exciting group of young players including winger Xavi Simons, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, Slovenian striker Benjamin Šeško and French defenders Mohamed Simakan and Castello Lukeba.

It's one measure of Openda's impact that he's started every Bundesliga game for Leipzig this season while Šeško has been a substitute for four of the last five. Timo Werner left Leipzig for a loan at Tottenham after starting just four games in all competitions in the first half of the season.

Openda came from Club Brugge's academy but credits his two years on loan at Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem with rebuilding his confidence and giving him the belief to succeed at a higher level. Openda followed up a 24-goal season with Vitesse in 2021-22 by moving to French club Lens and scoring 21 goals there last season.

“I want to be a top player, I want to be with the best teams in the world,” he said. "The move to Leipzig helped me to do that and that’s why I came to Leipzig.”

Leverkusen needs to show it can still compete with Germany's top teams despite losing key players to injury and the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations. Alonso's team was nearly held to a draw by Augsburg last week before Exequiel Palacios broke through with the only goal of the game in stoppage time.

Elsewhere, Bayern hosts Werder Bremen on Sunday, and Borussia Dortmund coach Edin Terzic will need to decide on Jadon Sancho's role against Cologne on Saturday after the on-loan Manchester United forward set up a goal last week in his first game since August.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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