Why Germany likes the Leverkusen fairytale | Football News - Hindustan Times
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Why Germany likes the Leverkusen fairytale

ByDhiman Sarkar, Kolkata
Apr 15, 2024 05:36 PM IST

Players in Alonso’s team can be crucial to Germany in the European championship and the club can challenge Bayern again.

The joy of fans spilling on to the pitch sums up the tribalism that supporting a team is all about. Emotions can become difficult to rein especially for a team with so many near-finishes that it started being called “Never-kusen”.

Leverkusen players celebrate with a makeshift trophy after Bayer Leverkusen won the German Bundesliga title, beating Werder Bremen in Leverkusen(AP) PREMIUM
Leverkusen players celebrate with a makeshift trophy after Bayer Leverkusen won the German Bundesliga title, beating Werder Bremen in Leverkusen(AP)

The match where Bayer 04 Leverkusen won their first Bundesliga title was also the one they came closest to losing. Had Sunday’s game against Werder Bremen been abandoned due to crowd trouble, Bayer 04 Leverkusen would have lost for the first time in 43 games That too when they were winning 4-0!

That was when BayArena had been stormed. Florian Wirtz, whose goal had sparked a premature start to the celebrations, scored again in the 90th to trigger another invasion. At a time when games routinely last 100 minutes or more, this one had no additional time. Nobody cared because Leverkusen were winning 5-0. Somewhere in the red mist and amid a wall of noise the referee had blown the final whistle, the cue for celebrations to officially begin. Wirtz was mobbed, so was Jeremie Frimpong and in trying to extricate players, security guards were as helpless as most teams have been against Leverkusen. Hands clasped across his chest till then, Xabi Alonso turned to the crowd and raised his arms. Soon after, the stadium serenaded their manager with “Viva Espana”.

Leverkusen’s title was a story of happy coincidences like Wirtz scoring his first hattrick against a team he made his Bundesliga debut in 2020 and relief like Granit Xhaka winning a title after coming so close with Arsenal. But in this world of fat-cat clubs dominating leagues, the triumph is also proof of why Eduardo Galeano said, “football never stops being astonishing.” Its stubborn capacity to surprise is the best thing about the sport, Galeano wrote in “Football In Sun And Shadow.”

In the late1990s, Kaiserslautern won Bundesliga in the season they were promoted. In the first decade of this century, Sao Caetano stunned Brazilian and South American heavyweights. Leicester City dilly-dinged-and-dilly-donged to a Premier League title in the twenty-tens, Napoli did that in Serie A last term, Girona nearly did in La Liga and then Leverkusen happened.

Yet no team barring Sao Caetano, who were in the second division when they nearly won the Brazilian championship in 2000 (top teams from three divisions played each other for the title that season), have had such an incredible run. Leverkusen had been runners-up in Bundesliga five times, once losing the title on the final day and squandering a five-point lead in another season, and had lost the 2001-02 Champions League final to a Zinedine Zidane special.

But they were second from bottom in October 2022, having shipped 16 goals in eight games, when Alonso was appointed. Having helmed Real Sociedad B and Real Madrid under-14, Alonso had never taken charge of a first team before. And here they were, unbeaten all season –they only team in Europe’s top five –which Leverkusen can finish with a treble. The previous best unbeaten run for a German team was 32 by Bayern.

It was possibly after the 3-0 win against Bayern, 11-time Bundesliga champions on the bounce till Alonso’s men overthrew them, that changed the race into a procession. Bayern had gone to Rhineland only two points behind but goals from their loanee Josep Stanisic, Alejandro Grimaldo and Frimpong provided a decisive turn to the season. Grimaldo and Frimpong stamping their influence in a key game was emblematic of a campaign where the wingbacks managed 50 goal contributions.

The teams had drawn 2-2 in the first fixture meaning the serial champions had only one point against Leverkusen. For Levekusen to do that against the club in Germany with the biggest pull, the largest budget and whose board room has World Cup winners, was a big step but there were others nearly as important. Such as come-from-behind wins against RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim – in the first, Exequiel Palacios scored the winner in the 94th minute after they were trailing twice and in the second, Robert Andrich equalised in the 88th before Patrik Schick found the winner – and salvaging a draw after trailing against Borussia Dortmund. Those games encapsulated the never-say-die attitude of a team that has scored 24 goals after the 80th minute in all competitions. After all, they are managed by a player who won a Champions League after trailing 0-3 at half-time.

Under director of sport and former club midfielder Simon Rolfes, Leverkusen bought well with Xhaka, Grimaldo, Jonas Hoffman and Boniface costing €44.5m. It was Rolfes who got Alonso to replace Gerardo Seoane. And appropriate for a man who comes from a Basque city known for puppetry, it is Alonso, once a midfielder with excellent distribution skills, who has been at the front and centre of this turnaround. It is one thing to have played under Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti quite another to have learnt from them.

Leverkusen can be narrow when they don’t have the ball and their energy usually leaves opponents tired as it did Bremen. Schick has found form and nearly every player has improved under Alonso. Case in point: after nine yellow cards and three red last term midfielder Piero Hincapie was booked for the first time in Bundesliga on Sunday.

Alonso’s 3-4-2-1 system has had Leverkusen launching speedy counter-attacks and playing through the lines. Two goals in Wirtz’s hattrick on Sunday were from quick breaks and Xhaka’s brilliant strike was from range. Leverkusen scored such goals all season but they also got one against Borussia Moenchengladbach from a 29-pass move. Bayern have scored more (82-74) but only Leverkusen have conceded less than 20. RB Leipzig’s 33 is the second fewest.

That is because the three-man defence usually comprising strong, tall players such as Jonathan Tah, Edmond Tapsoba and Odilon Kossounou have been solid. The backline has been aided by Palacios and Xhaka’s ball-winning skills and their ability to retain possession under pressure. Victor Boniface leads the charts with 11 goals but 16 players have scored this season.

Alonso deciding to stay is proof that Leverkusen, unlike Napoli after 22-23, mean business. A challenge of pitting this squad against the best in Europe awaits for Alonso who decided to forego the temptation of moving to Bayern or returning to Liverpool to succeed Klopp (always a risky business as successive managers after Alex Ferguson will testify). Another will be to grow the anyone-but-Bayern mood.

His staying on adds to the good vibes coursing through German football now. Rüdi Völler was at BayArena not just as a former club legend but also as national team director who has just signed an extension. Recent wins against France and Holland have given hope that hosting the Euros may not be a disaster as was being felt after 2022. Crucial to that has been the performance of Leverkusen’s Wirtz, Tah, Hofmann and Andrich.

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