It has been five years since Bayer Leverkusen last made the German Cup final, then losing 1-0 to a Werder Bremen team inspired by Mesut Özil. Even more striking, it has been 21 years since they last lifted the Cup. That was back in 1993 when they beat Hertha Berlin.
Despite that drought, though, this season may present Leverkusen with the best opportunity to add a second Cup to their trophy cabinet. With Sami Hyypia’s team flying high, Bayern Munich focused on defending their Champions League title and Borussia Dortmund’s fluctuation form, Leverkusen could well be the best-positioned team to lift the trophy in Berlin come May.
If there is one truism in German football or as far as the Cup is concerned, is that form counts almost more than anything come the big final. Barring a few isolated incidents, the more in-form side has almost always come out on top in the end. One would have to go back to 1992 for the last real upset, when 2. Bundesliga side Hannover 96 beat Borussia Monchengladbach in the final.
As Leverkusen welcome Kaiserslautern in the quarterfinal, in their first home match in the Cup in 11 years, there are few sides more in form than Sami Hyypia’s side. The team had their best start to a league season in 12 years, and 20 matches in, they already have 14 wins recorded, a historic club-high.
More importantly, Leverkusen’s key players are all hitting their stride. Heung-Min Son, who scored the match-winner at the weekend against Borussia Monchengladbach, is in his best spell at the club and is finally playing the kind of football that made him such a desirable player at Hamburg. In the last 13 games in which Son has scored, none of his teams have lost.
What’s more, Sidney Sam, who was Leverkusen’s most important player before injury in November, recorded his seventh assist of the season against Gladbach, a personal best for him in his career. Having him back could quite possibly be a difference-maker for the club. Leverkusen have only lost two of the 22 games he has featured in this season in all competitions. Simply put, when Sam plays, Leverkusen rarely lose.
Finally, Stefan Kiessling is having another impressive season with 14 goals in all competitions. He is one goal away from overtaking Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose in the Bundesliga’s all-time goal-scoring charts. Suffice to say, their attack has rounded into form at the exact right time. The attacking trio of Son, Kiessling and Sam have been responsible for 70 percent of their goals in the league this season and are firing on all cylinders.
Bayer vs Bayern
If Leverkusen are to go all the way and win the German Cup, the biggest hurdle will undoubtedly be overcoming defending champions Bayern Munich. Whether it is in the semifinals or the final, Leverkusen will have to beat Germany’s record champions and 16-time winners of the trophy to come out victorious.
What works in Leverkusen’s favor, though, is the fact that their form has been quite good against Bayern as of late. Last season they were the only team to beat Bayern in the league as they swept their opponents aside on the way to the title. And this season, Leverkusen, along with Freiburg, are the only team to have taken points off Bayern in the league.
Leverkusen’s form against Bayern is no coincidence either. Hyypia’s counter-attacking style is ready-made to counteract Pep Guardiola’s possession-based system. Bayern under Pep have been most vulnerable when facing sides that move the ball quickly between attack and defense and no side does this better in Germany than Leverkusen.
Circumstances Favor Leverkusen
What may help Leverkusen above all is the fact that Bayern and Borussia Dortmund will likely shift their focus towards their Champions League campaigns. The pressure on Bayern and Dortmund to advance to the quarterfinals will be infinitely bigger, having made the final last season, than on a Leverkusen whose group-stage campaign is already seen as successful.
Of course, Leverkusen need to first beat Kaiserslautern to even face the likes of Bayern or Dortmund, but history certainly favors Die Werkself. Although Kaiserslautern knocked Leverkusen out of the Cup in 2009, you have to go back 11 years for the last time they beat Leverkusen in the league.
Bayern have beaten Leverkusen only three times in their last nine competitive meetings in all competitions. That is not assuming Leverkusen is guaranteed an automatic place in the semifinals. Instead, it suggests a formidable record against Germany’s best side and is symbolic of the tremendous growth and development at the club in recent years.
Although Bayern and Dortmund have rightfully shared the German football spotlight, Leverkusen’s development in the last three years has been just as impressive. They have become a European regular, have a record-breaking season in the league, and arguably the best-performing side against a Bayern team destined to go down as German football’s greatest.