Dead-ball specialists Calhanoglu, Pjanic to put on UCL performance
At their final team meetings, Bayer Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt and his opposite number at Roma, Rudi Garcia, will give the same specific tactical instruction to their players before their encounter at the BayArena in Germany on Tuesday night. Whatever you do, avoid unnecessary fouls in the vicinity of the penalty area. Otherwise, goalkeepers Bernd Leno and Wojciech Szczesny will be placed in immediate danger. It doesn't matter what the angle or distance is.
A game of fine margins between Leverkusen's Vollgas-Fussball and Roma's Grande Bellezza could ultimately be decided by a duel between the finest free-kick takers in Europe right now: midfielders Hakan Calhanoglu (Leverkusen) and Miralem Pjanic (Roma). No one bends it quite like they do. It isn't a superpower, but it is a talent honed through hours and hours of study and practice.
A pushy parent is behind the Calhanoglu curl. Hakan and his brother Muhammed (now on the books of SK Austria Klagenfurt) were drilled by their father Huseyin on a pitch near their home in Mannheim-Wohlgelegen. "He was really crazy," Calhanoglu told Der Spiegel. "He would always go in goal and wanted us to shoot in between the angle of the crossbar and the post. It didn't matter if it was raining, snowing or if there was a thunderstorm raging." Perhaps it was this all-weather conditioning that put ice in his veins. Now goalkeepers get the shivers whenever Hakan stands over a dead ball. Call it the Calhanoglu chill.
Of course, Pjanic had a much more illustrious mentor than his great contemporary. You might say he got the best possible education any aspiring sultan of swing could wish for. Even Andrea Pirlo, the player whose shadow Pjanic has stepped out of as Serie A's No .1 free-kick sicario, would be jealous. Because at Lyon, Pjanic was apprentice to a grand master, Juninho Pernambucano, the all-time top scorer of free kicks (10) in the Champions League.
Pirlo's respect for the man, who curled in no fewer than 44 over his career, manifested itself in an anorak-like collection of videos, DVDs and even old photographs of his games in order to understand his immortal technique. Juninho's podiatric dexterity, the manipulation of the ball by his divine right foot, was such that Pirlo joked in his biography -- the brilliant "I Think Therefore I Play" -- that Juninho "makes an OK gesture with his big toe instead of his hand."
The only time Pirlo has ever looked starstruck was upon finally meeting his inspiration at the World Cup in Brazil the summer before last. And to think that Pjanic is the player to whom Juninho entrusted his secrets. "We used to stay back after training and practice," the Brazilian told Tuttosport. "You could see he had talent and a great desire to learn." Pjanic was Juninho's anointed heir. "When I left Lyon, he took my No. 8 shirt."
Calhanoglu, 21, is nearly four years younger than Pjanic, 25, and the more or less self-taught Calhanoglu's rise in status as the continent's boy wonder of whipped free kicks has been somewhat precocious. He announced himself to the world 18 months ago with a free kick that would have confounded even Juninho. Lining up his sights just inside Borussia Dortmund's half, Calhanoglu, then at Hamburg, contrived to beat goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller from 50 yards. It kept travelling after it went in, too. It went viral. "I could hardly sleep for joy and watched it 50 times," Calhanoglu said.
To even attempt it from there betrayed a confidence that suggested this wasn't some fluke, and before the end of his breakout season, Calhanoglu demonstrated against Hannover that he could also get it up and over the wall from just outside the box too. Near or far, it didn't matter; the result was the same.
Upon moving to Leverkusen for €15.5 million last season, his approach became more scientific. All of his free kicks are filmed in training. "We analyse them," he told Sport1. "For me, feedback is very important." He can assess his decision-making, check his run-up, see where he sets his foot, if it needs correcting, and how he struck the ball. "Gradually, we have refined my technique," Calhanoglu explained. Perfected it, more like.
His pursuit of self-improvement has seen the him ascend to pre-eminence in his field. Calhanoglu scored 10 free kicks in all competitions last season for club and country. They were clutch, too. "He usually scores when it is really tight," Leverkusen CEO Michael Schade observed. They tend to either seal victory or set his team on the way to it.
For instance, against Schalke last season, Calhanoglu got the only goal of the game. His strikes against FK Magdeburg in the DFB Pokal broke the deadlock, as did those against Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim in the league. Is it any wonder that sporting director Rudi Voller likes to refer to Calhanoglu as "the safe cracker"?
After finishing the 2014-15 Bundesliga campaign on six free-kick goals, Calhanoglu's objective ahead of this one was to break the single-season record of seven, held by Mario Basler. "I came close," he told Express. "Perhaps it will be more difficult this season because the goalkeepers know me better. But I'll give it a go." There isn't one keeper Calhanoglu can't beat. He is the only player to get the better of Manuel Neuer from a direct free kick in the great keeper's Bundesliga career at Bayern.
But maybe Calhanoglu is on to something. Maybe goalkeepers are wiser to him now. This season he has scored only one from 12 attempts and risks losing his crown to Pjanic.
Juninho is awaiting his pupil's ascendancy to an altogether different level. "I expect him to become even more decisive from less central positions," he said. Pjanic has impressively put away three from only five free-kick shot attempts this season; he is in the form of his life. No one in Europe's top five leagues has scored more this season. Not Willian or Christian Eriksen (two each).
Pjanic's goal against Empoli on Saturday, almost a carbon copy of the one he score against Juventus in terms of its starting position, was made to look so easy, it could have been a penalty kick. Goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski knows Pjanic better than most. On loan from Roma, he trained with Pjanic last season. The Pole knew exactly where his former teammate was going -- eight of the 10 Pjanic has scored in a Roma shirt have gone to the keeper's right -- but still couldn't stop it. Only Pirlo has scored more (12) since Pjanic has been in Serie A, and the Italian is no longer in the league.
Both Calhanoglu and Pjanic are a joy to watch in open play, but attention on them will only heighten when the referee calls a foul on Tuesday and they get an opportunity to test the goalkeeper. A dream for free-kick specialists like them -- others include Karim Bellarabi, Julian Brandt, Mohamed Salah and Gervinho -- Leverkusen and Roma have players who like nothing more than to run at and take on defenders. They force mistakes and draw fouls with their dribbles, setting their specialists up to do what they do best.
"Pjanic is the future," Juninho believes. But there really is no time like the present for Calhanoglu -- Der Kunstler, i.e., the Artist -- to prove him wrong.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.