Source: Imago Images
Source: Imago Images

No more Neverkusen

Football OlyBet 17.04.2024

Sometimes dreams do come true. For a team known for bottling everything, Bayer Leverkusen have done a wonderful job to push the limits and conquer Germany for the first time. And they might not be done yet.

Manchester City, the Treble winners in 2022-23, lost their first game of the season in October. The Invincibles of Arsenal who went undefeated in the 2003-04 Premier League lost seven games in other competitions. Of the top, top teams, Juventus came closest to a perfect season in 2011-12; they did not play in Europe but lost the Coppa Italia final to Napoli. Their sole loss came in the last game of the season.

For those who have wandered here from the future, today is April 17th, 2024 and Leverkusen has not lost in 43 games, the longest unbeaten start in the last 60 years amongst teams from the top five leagues. Forget about ending the reign of Bayern. This will be their legacy, should they go all the way. The perfect season. From Neverkusen to Neverlusen.

It would take eleven more games over the next month and a half. Five in the Bundesliga and five in the Europa League, should all go well, plus the DFB-Pokal final. Who would have thought this to be possible? And that Leverkusen, of all teams, would be the one to be in this position? They have come a long way since 2002.

Heartbreak of the highest order

Hans-Jörg Butt, Marko Babic, Jens Nowotny, Ze Roberto, Ulf Kirsten, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Ballack, Lucio, Bernd Schneider, Oliver Neuville. You could easily mistake that for any list of legendary larger-than-life footballers, but this is the squad Leverkusen put together for the 2001/02 season. It was no fluke.

The disaster hit hard on a personal level too. If you are around thirty, there is a good chance you remember the final, like me. For long I figured my love for football started with the 2002 World Cup, but I vividly remember seeing Iker Casillas come on as a sub to deny Leverkusen numerous times, and of course, the momentous volley of Zinedine Zidane which can never be repeated.

It could not have been any other match, yet it somehow does not fit my personal timeline. Why would I have watched it? I do not remember knowing what a Real Madrid was. I am not even sure I knew how to kick a ball myself. So of course, understanding what happened that night took years if not decades. That is presuming I understand it now – it must have felt very, very different for the fans. Some things you can not understand without being there.

This time 22 years ago they were on top too. But they lost two of the last three league games, the Pokal final, and the Champions League final. They lost the league by a point, the Pokal after leading 1-0, and vs Real because of remarkable performances from the very best players in the history of football. How close can you get without winning it? Leverkusen should know.

Redemption at last

A 1992-93 Pokal was their last silverware until last weekend. Their trophy cabinet had a total of three pieces to show: a 2. Bundesliga North title from 1978-79, a UEFA Cup triumph in 1987-88, and the Pokal. They had finished second nine times in the following 31 years. But no one would deny them this time. No more heartbreak. Enough.

It all started with Xabi Alonso, the 42-year-old who had coached the Real Sociedad B-side to a promotion and then a relegation in subsequent seasons. He joined in October 2022, with the team second from the bottom after eight games. He reversed their fortunes to finish sixth and reach the Europa League semi-finals, but nothing predicted it would be like this come 2024.

Whether we will ever talk about this group of guys – Lukas Hradecky, Jonathan Tah, Piero Hincapie, Patrik Schick, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Florian Wirtz – like we do about the 2002 squad, time will tell. But this is a team built on a solid foundation. Most of the squad was there before Alonso entered the picture.

Last summer, they got Jonas Hofmann, Alex Grimaldo, Victor Boniface, and Granit Xhaka. They cost less than any player Chelsea would ever look at – combined. All were mediocre or considered bit-part players elsewhere. Look at them now.

The next steps

Xabi Alonso, chased by Liverpool and Bayern Munich (and maybe every other team in the world), will stay. In a world where contracts mean little, he is tied down until 2026. More importantly, he feels this is the right place for him to develop. When he decides it is time to move on, he will have plenty of offers, whatever happens next at Leverkusen.

It is a little more complicated with the players. Some of them know they will probably not get a more lucrative offer. Winning does that to you. Leicester sold N’Golo Kante in the summer of 2016, did not get close again, and are now in the Championship. Monaco lost most of their core in 2017, including Kylian Mbappe, and were almost relegated in 2018-19. There is a fine line to it.

“Every year we need to sell one big player to budget for new signings, so probably we will sell,” Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro admitted. It is an honest reflection of where the club stands despite all the joy. Their wage bill is less than half of what Bayern are spending. You have to keep your feet on the ground in a situation like this.

The 20-year-old Florian Wirtz could – and probably should – warrant a nine-figure sum, especially if he excels at EURO 2024 for Germany, but Carro stated he will stay put for another season. Could Victor Boniface leave? Jeremie Frimpong? Alex Grimaldo? Edmond Tapsoba? There will be some hard decisions to make come summer.

But we are not there yet. The job is not finished until it is. Eleven more games. Time to push.


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