8 Points Behind Bayern, but Are Leverkusen Bundesliga Contenders?
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With four wins on the trot, Leverkusen have stormed up the Bundesliga table. Placed fifth a couple weeks ago and in a dead heat with the likes of Frankfurt and Mainz, the Werkself have narrowed the gap on leaders Bayern to eight points and now sit second.
Leverkusen are the Bundesliga's best team in their last five matches overall and at home. Only Dortmund and Bayern have scored more, and B04 remain the Bundesliga's only undefeated team at home.
Oh, and they beat Bayern at the Allianz Arena. Not bad for a club managed by a guy (Sami Hyypia) who still doesn't have his coaching license.
Their form and standing beg the question: Could Leverkusen truly be title contenders?
The answer is a complicated one.
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In Bernd Leno the Werkself have one of the best young goalkeepers in Germany and Europe overall. Ahead of him, Philipp Wollscheid has proven an inspired signing both as a defender and from set pieces.
He has formed a strong central-defensive partnership with Omer Toprak, and the two compliment each other very well. Both 23, they could be Hyypia's first-choice pair for years to come.
Out wide, Daniel Carvajal has emerged as a reliable full-back and a brilliant attacking force on the right flank. He and Michal Kadlec can compete with any full-back combination in the Bundesliga.
Hyypia employs a trifecta of central midfielders in Lars Bender, Stefan Reinartz and Simon Rolfes. Each is decidedly a defensive midfielder, but the three have just the right combination of attributes, each contributing a unique dimension: Bender is the skilled one who steps into the final third; Reinartz is the displaced centre-back and midfield destroyer; Rolfes is a mix of the two whose key addition comes in the form of leadership and intelligence.
And all the above cover ground like there's no tomorrow.
Out wide, Hyypia relies on Gonzalo Castro and Andre Schuerrle. The former, who has spent most of his career in defense, has been a revelation in a less-constricted role. He easily makes up for the holding midfielders' relatively underwhelming passing and is adept both at creating play and scoring: Already, he has scored a considerable seven goals.
Schuerrle is more of a natural forward than Castro, and while he has not exactly hit top form this season, his class sets him apart. The 22-year-old has all the talent to take over matches on his own, as he did against Schalke in November.
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Finally, in attack, Leverkusen have the Bundesliga's most prolific striker of 2012 in Stefan Kiessling. The 28-year-old has scored 22 times in league play during the calendar year and has all the classic characteristics of a class striker.
In reserves, Leverkusen have quality options. Former Oliver Kahn understudy Michael Rensing is Leno's backup, while the experienced Manuel Friedrich can step into defense. Karim Bellarabi and Sidney Sam are options on the wings, Hajime Hosogai can be used in midfield and defense, and even Jens Hegeler has developed into a quality role-player.
Okan Aydin and especially Dominik Kohr, in reserve, are chomping at the bit: Both just 18 years of age, they could see more regular playing time in the second round.
Not only do Leverkusen have a talented squad, but their results are indicative of a top-class side. They beat Bayern in Munich and earned a convincing 2-0 win against Schalke. The only blip on their record is a 3-0 loss in Dortmund early in the campaign.
Leverkusen's success may come as a surprise, given the volatility in their recent history. They had looked to be powers of the Bundesliga in 2011 until Jupp Heynckes and Arturo Vidal jumped ship. And although they qualified for the Champions League Round of 16 last season, their performance against Barcelona was amateur.
The fact that Kadlec and Friedrich got into a fight over who would take Lionel Messi's shirt was more humiliating than the 10-2 aggregate defeat.
Where will Leverkusen finish this season?
Over the summer there were serious questions of the viability of this Leverkusen team. Strong backups in the forms of Rene Adler, Bastian Oczipka, Tranquillo Barnetta, Vedran Corluka, Michael Ballack and Eren Derdiyok all left.
But Hyypia played his cards right: He trusted in several previously unproven individuals, and they haven't yet let him down.
Still, Leverkusen are eight points behind Bayern, a deficit that may prove insurmountable. They may have beaten the league leaders, but all the good that win caused was undone by their needless losses to Wolfsburg and Frankfurt.
Leverkusen have a good foundation now but still have some distance to go if they are to contend for the Bundesliga title. Nearby Koeln, Duesseldorf and Moenchengladbach have more fan support; the BayArena can barely fit 30,000, and attendance has historically been the lowest among the Bundesliga's traditional clubs.
The combination of less-than-enthused fans and the club's reputation as eternal nearly-men ("Vizekusen" in German, or "Neverkusen" in English) make Leverkusen a volatile side.
When they look to be on the cusp of their big break, stars will jump ship—Vidal even gave up Champions League football to leave the Rhine club. And although his transfer to Liverpool included a buyback clause, it's uncertain whether Samed Yesil—Germany's biggest striking talent since Mario Gomez and Lukas Podolski—will ever want to return.
In all likelihood, Leverkusen will not sell any key players in January. But the their history and culture do not bode well for the club's title hopes.
They have depth and talent, but the pride, heart and spirit of a championship-winning side just isn't there. And with Bayern unlikely to drop much more than eight points between now and May, the best Leverkusen can aim for is a cruelly appropriate second.
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