Leverkusen’s latest wobble reignites fears of past failure
On a crest of a wave after setting a new Bundesliga record of 24 games unbeaten at the start of a season, championship-chasing Bayer Leverkusen may have thought they had found a cure for the inconsistency which has undermined every one of their previous attempts to win the league. However, on the evidence of their first game as history makers, there’s plenty more research for the works club of the pharmaceutical giants to do.
Not only did a shock 3-2 defeat at lowly Nurnberg mean the end of a glorious 288-day sequence, it also had the “Neverkusen Naysayers” once again calling their nerve into question. And with title rivals Bayern Munich and Schalke in full cry, the last thing Leverkusen need right now is ghosts resurfacing from their near-miss past.
In public, coach Jupp Heynckes responded philosophically to the reverse, with the ex-Bayern Munich and Real Madrid boss saying: “We had to lose some time, but we still find ourselves in a privileged position at the top end of the table.
“Everyone one at this club would have jumped at such a position at the start of the season.”
However, “Don Jupp” surely would not have been so sanguine behind closed doors.
Sloppiness and delayed reactions were all his side had to offer in an abysmal first half against Nurnberg and it was only when they went 3-0 down, after 55 minutes, that they finally began to work up a head of steam, reducing the arrears with goals from Stefan Kiessling and Patrick Helmes. But it was too little too late and Nurnberg – for whom on-loan Hamburg striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting scored twice and Mickael Tavares added another – held on for their first win in nearly five months.
Among Heynckes most pressing problems is the loss of form of his talented young keeper Rene Adler, who has been on “gaffe watch” ever since Germany coach Joachim Low indicated that he would be his starter in South Africa. In the Nationalmannschaft’s recent friendly defeat by Argentina in Munich, Adler’s ill-advised dash from his line effectively waved Gonzalo Higuain through to slot home the only goal of the game, and he was equally at fault in Leverkusen’s 2-2 draw at Werder Bremen, comically mishandling a Naldo free-kick and allowing a grateful Claudio Pizarro to tap in.
Another international in the dock is attacker Lukas Podolski – once exclusively known for his left-footed shooting power, but who now seems hell-bent on taking up pugilism as a career.
Censured last year for slapping Germany skipper Michael Ballack during a World Cup qualifier against Wales, Podolski once again displayed his hair-trigger temper in an unsavoury confrontation with a TV journalist in the wake of the Argentina game.
While it is true Podolski was provoked by Christian Ortlepp, the chief reporter of the DSF sports channel, who, instead of sugaring the pill and gently hinting at the interviewee’s under-par performance, went straight for the jugular with the comment “your best moment of the night was in the warm-up”, there was still no excuse for the fire and brimstone reaction, the wild attempt to make it physical, the gesticulating and the furious demand that Ortlepp step outside.
Podolski simply would not calm down and even came back for a second rant after originally being led away from the mixed zone by Germany defender Philipp Lahm. Although always a fiery competitor, “Poldi” should have known better.
As rumours of an international suspension began to circulate, an emergency meeting between Low, team manager Oliver Bierhoff and DFB president Theo Zwanziger decided an apology from the miscreant on the federation website would suffice.
Little wonder Podolski was a volcano waiting to erupt. Since returning to his first club Koln last summer, after three unhappy seasons at Bayern, he has hardly pulled up any trees and, while he does have a fine strike rate for the national team (37 goals in 70 appearances), he must realise he is under pressure to retain his place in the side.
Ironic, then, that in his first match after the mayhem in Munich he should score with a free-kick in Koln’s creditable 1-1 draw at home to Bayern. It could not have come at a better time, ending the 24-year-old’s dreadful run of 1,425 minutes without a goal.
“You know, I might have a tattoo of this number done,” was the typical Podolski reaction.