- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2017

BERLIN (AP) - School aside, Kai Havertz has been learning a lot this season.

The 17-year-old midfielder is one of Bayer Leverkusen’s brightest prospects, and he has a chance to put his skill on display to a wide audience on Tuesday when his team faces Atletico Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League.

“We saw him in training. We tried to give him a bit of playing time in the last games to see how he reacts playing in a full stadium,” Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt said after Havertz played his first full game in November.

“He’s an excellent footballer with outstanding technique, fast, robust in challenges, a good header of the ball and, yeah, he’s a player that does us really well.”

Havertz started the season with Leverkusen’s under-19 team and was just over 17 years, 4 months old when he made his first senior team appearance as a substitute against Werder Bremen on Oct. 15. More playing time followed against Wolfsburg before his first full game against Darmstadt on Nov. 5.

Schmidt has been coming under pressure lately after several lackluster performances in a disappointing season, but Havertz in particular starred in the team’s last two games as Leverkusen dug out impressive wins over Eintracht Frankfurt and Augsburg in the league.

Havertz started and set up goals in both games, as he did on his previous start against Cologne. But it’s his overall play - his composure on the ball, his technical skill, his perception to anticipate teammates’ movement and ability to then play the ball right where they want it - that has the rest of the league sitting up and taking notice.

Against Augsburg last Friday, Havertz set up two scores, helping Karim Bellarabi score the league’s 50,000th goal and then sending a perfect through ball for Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to wrap up the 3-1 win.

Havertz was involved in seven of Leverkusen’s efforts on goal, won more challenges (14) than any of his teammates, saw more of the ball than any of them, completed as many passes (40) as teammate Kevin Kampl, while he ran almost 12 kilometers - more than any other player on the field.

“He’s so young and he plays so well,” Bellarabi said of Havertz.

Leverkusen has been protecting its new star from the increased attention so he can concentrate on his schoolwork - he still has to complete his final secondary-school examinations.

While he isn’t giving interviews, words are left to others.

“If he keeps his head clear, he can be a great one,” Leverkusen goalkeeper Bernd Leno said after the game in Augsburg.

Schmidt’s enthusiasm is tempered by an urge not to overburden the player with expectation.

Havertz has outstanding technical abilities and the gift of making very good decisions. That’s why he plays for us,” the Leverkusen coach said. “We don’t want to praise him too much, though. Now we’re really looking forward to Atletico.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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