Winter champions Leverkusen are making a strong bid for their first Bundesliga title
Rhineland-based global pharmaceutical giant Bayer must have enjoyed the end-
of-year festivities. The company’s balance sheet is standing up well to the recession, they recently won an award for an anti-thrombosis drug and their football team, Bayer Leverkusen, are making a strong bid for a first-ever Bundesliga crown, going into the winter break top of the table and undefeated.
Over the last two decades, the Leverkusener have proved to be the ultimate in championship bluffers: so often in the shake-up for honours, only to be ultimately unmasked as imposters. This time around, though, it could be different.
While their traditional virtues of youthful exuberance and straight-for-the-jugular attacking flair continue to be sacrosanct, new coach Jupp Heynckes has crucially managed to do what many thought impossible: add more resilience, pragmatism and consistency to these young lions.
When their free-flowing style breaks down, they now know how to win ugly, and central to their new-found taste for the battlefield is veteran Finland centre-back Sami Hyypia, who since arriving on a Bosman free from Liverpool last summer has rapidly established himself as the best in his position in the Bundesliga. How his old Anfield boss, Rafa Benitez, must wish he could still call on the indomitable Finn to steady the ship. Washed up? So is an iceberg.
With prolific striker Stefan Kiessling (arguably the most in-vogue player of the autumn), attacking midfielders of the calibre of German boy wonder Toni Kroos and Swiss wide-man Tranquillo Barnetta, and a block-house defence built around Hyypia and brilliant young Germany keeper Rene Adler, Bayer have the look of a side ready for the long haul.
However, they can take nothing for granted. Neither of their two previous stints as “Winter Champions”, in 1993-94 and 2001-02, presaged a title in May and for all their excellent work this term, their advantage at the shutdown was anything but gargantuan, with second-placed Schalke only a point in arrears and Bayern Munich just two behind.
Bayern coach Louis Van Gaal had gone into the final Champions League group game against Juventus knowing that his fate was on the line as even the club’s most partisan supporters would have regarded home and away defeats to Bordeaux as tantamount to the last rites.
Yet rather than a one-way trip to the mortuary – in these parts the Europa League is thought to be as enticing as a holiday in the Gulag – Bayern went into improbable fightback mode, first recording a battling 1-0 win at home to Maccabi Haifa, then clinching a spot in the knockout stage of the competition courtesy of a come-from-behind 4-1 win at Juventus – the first time they had ever triumphed in Turin.
A seemingly never-ending sequence of stodgy, colourless performances in the Bundesliga, a far from happy fan base, plus several episodes of dissent within the squad – notably concerning skipper Philipp Lahm and Italian striker Luca Toni – had severely weakened Van Gaal’s position.
But an early Champions League exit would have been the last straw after splashing out £70million on new players last summer.
Not that there is any chance of Van Gaal being jettisoned now. The comprehensive defeat of Juventus was his team’s most cohesive and enterprising performance of the season and, domestically too, the signs are most encouraging.
The 4-2-2-2 system featuring Mario Gomez and Ivica Olic up front, with Bastian Schweinsteiger in a new role as a deep-lying central midfielder, is clicking into gear.
After constant changes in personnel – aside from the faith placed in giant Belgian defender Daniel Van Buyten, who has been so tremendously effective at either end of the pitch – Van Gaal is finally reaping the benefit of a settled side.
Who would have thought it possible that a Bayern minus its two main creators – long-term injury victims Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben – could so spectacularly turn the corner?
Nor will anyone be rushing to write off Schalke’s chances of planting their flag on the Bundesliga summit next spring. As he proved in leading unfashionable Wolfsburg to the title last term, coach Felix Magath may be the antithesis of a footballing “Renaissance Man”, wedded for life to old-school virtues of fitness, graft, discipline and long ball, but he undeniably holds the patent for assembling teams which live and breathe over-achievement.
Magath truly is an alchemist. A wave of his magic wand and Schalke suddenly develop a backbone on their travels. An abracadabra is the signal for key players – attackers Kevin Kuranyi and Jefferson Farfan, and Brazilian oldie centre-back Marcelo Bordon – to leap from their sporting sick bed and start delivering in spades.
Pull back the curtain and behold a fine clutch of novice first-teamers, especially defender Carlos Zambrano and midfielders Lukas Schmitz, Christoph Moritz and Joel Matip.
The Bundesliga’s age-old tradition for suspense-filled final acts seems in safe hands. Compared to most of the cartel-dominated major European leagues, the talent is more evenly distributed in the German top flight and this is borne out by the standings. A mere 11 points separate Leverkusen from Eintracht Frankfurt in 10th, and clubs such as Hoffenheim, Hamburg, Werder Bremen and Dortmund all see themselves as genuine contenders for a Champions League qualifying spot.
Down in the relegation zone, the picture is equally unclear. At least eight clubs – Hertha Berlin, Nurnberg, Bochum, Stuttgart, Hannover, Koln Freiburg, and Gladbach – could yet feel the hangman’s noose, with the capital city club by far the most at risk.
Abysmal from first to last, Hertha won just once before the mid-winter break and, 10 points off safety, the dye would appear to be cast.