5 reasons Xabi Alonso's Bayer Leverkusen will qualify for Europe
The form of Florian Wirtz, a rapid right-flank and the X factor of their World Cup, Euro, UEFA Champions League and Bundesliga-winning coach Xabi Alonso are all reasons Bayer Leverkusen fans can hope their side can still snatch a European place this season.
1) Go with the Flo
"You have to give such special players the possibility to do special things on the pitch," said Alonso of Wirtz, the 19-year-old prodigy who the tactician has had available again to conjure the magic required to propel Die Werkself up the table.
Sidelined by an ACL injury sustained in March last year, Wirtz had to wait until Matchday 16 to get his first taste of Bundesliga action this season. He's hit the ground running since, chalking up six assists and scoring in the 3-0 win at Schalke to make it seven goal contributions in 12 appearances. Wirtz has also chipped in with a further three goals and two assists to help Leverkusen reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League, while he was recalled to the Germany setup and appeared in the recent friendlies against Peru and Belgium, taking his senior international caps tally to six.
Watch: All of Wirtz's goals and assists in 2022/23
But the youngest player ever to reach double figures for Bundesliga goals - Wirtz currently has 14 from 72 games - cannot do it all himself.
"We want to be a good team, and with Florian we'll be a better team. But not because Florian is magic and the team is automatically better," explained Alonso. "When the team works well, Florian will make us better. Look at Argentina. They had Messi for years, but the team didn't work so well. But when the team worked, Messi was better too, and Argentina were a better team."
2) The gap
RB Leipzig were five points off fourth place after 15 games last season and still qualified for the Champions League. A 3-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt on Matchday 27 - their fifth in a row in the Bundesliga - brought Leverkusen into the top six, where they remain after a subsequent scoreless draw against Wolfsburg. That would be good enough to qualify for the UEFA Europa Conference League, but Alonso's men are now only six points off a Europa League place and just seven behind the hallowed ground of fourth spot's promise of Champions League football next season.
The DFB Cup could also help their cause, with Freiburg, Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt all in the semi-finals. If any of those three finish in the top six and win the cup, then seventh place in the league would also be good enough to qualify for Europe.
Considering Leverkusen were in the bottom three on Matchday 12, and started the year only marginally better off in 12th, it's been quite the turnaround for Alonso's men. But the coach isn't looking too far ahead, living by the football cliche of taking each game as it comes.
"It's not to be taken for granted that we get a European place," said Alonso. "If we make the same mistakes, we can again have problems. In my opinion, there's nothing in football that is a given."
3) The X(abi) factor
Anyone care to write off the coaching ability of a man who won three Bundesliga titles at Bayern under Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti? Who won two UEFA Champions Leagues with Liverpool and Real Madrid and a brace of UEFA European Championships and a FIFA World Cup with Spain? And who was widely considered one of the most intelligent players of his generation?
"As a personality and because of his experience, Xabi Alonso is a big win for the Bundesliga," said Stefan Effenberg, the flamboyant and often combustible former Bayern and Germany midfielder who knows a thing or two about personality. "But big names alone do not guarantee success."
True enough, and yes, Alonso does not have much coaching experience at the top level. Real Sociedad's reserve team was his biggest job before arriving at the BayArena to replace Gerardo Seoane in early October.
But there is little doubt the Basque is taking the team in the right direction.
A 4-0 win over Schalke kicked-off Alonso's spell and the 3-0 repeat on Matchday 26 took Leverkusen to 14 wins. His record now stands at 15 wins six draws and seven defeats in his 28 games in charge across all competitions. With six victories and two draws in eleven games in the second-half of the season - or the Rückrunde - Leverkusen are currently the fourth best side in Germany's top flight in that particular table.
Alonso's guidance has also paid off in Europe, where victories over Monaco and Ferencvaros have put his side into the last eight of the Europa League, where they are currently involved in a tie against Belgium's Union Saint-Gilloise.
The Spaniard's aura of 'former great player' - the personality Effenberg was talking about - means his squad are in awe of their boss, who gave everyone a clean slate and the opportunity to impress him. "The energy and self-confidence in the team was low. So I tried to get the players to believe in themselves again," explained Alonso. "I invited players that hadn't played so much before to prove themselves, and the likes of Nadiem Amiri, Adam Hlozek and Mitchel Bakker - as well as others - have taken that chance."
4) A rapid right-flank
Leverkusen sporting director Simon Rolfes said Alonso was the man "to bring the fire back" to the team. Having spent the first stage of his tenure putting fires out, Alonso now has Leverkusen's coals burning thanks to the white heat coming off the lightning-quick pairing of Jeremie Frimpong and Moussa Diaby.
Their pace makes for a frightening prospect in singular form. As a double act, though, they are truly petrifying as they run down opponents from the Leverkusen right. Diaby is the third-fastest player in the league this season, clocking in at 22.7mph, while Frimpong is sixth on the list after registering his own top speed of 22.4mph.
Watch: All Frimpong's Bundesliga goals and assists in 2022/23
Even when the going was tough earlier in the campaign, the pair were bright sparks for the Werkself and they have kicked on in recent weeks. Diaby has two goals and three assists from Leverkusen's last five games, with Frimpong going just as well (three goals, two assists). The dynamic duo have almost identical numbers in terms of goal contributions, although Diaby edged ahead with nine goals and six assists after Matchday 27. They lead the Leverkusen charts in both categories and, what's more, no Bundesliga pairing has combined for more goals this term (eight).
5) Mass, meet velocity
Momentum is crucial in football, and Leverkusen have plenty of it. Those five wins on the bounce - including a victory over defending champions Bayern Munich - have them perfectly poised.
Leverkusen's winning streak has brought with it 15 goals at an average of three per game, continuing a stunning start to 2023. Alonso's outfit are now the division's overall fourth-highest scorers, thanks to a stunning run since the turn of the year. They've also conceded only 16 goals in 2023, ranking them among the list of best defences this year.
Watch: See how Leverkusen beat Bayern
Leverkusen fans will hope that a rip-roaring restart will continue, and that their team can chase down a top-six finish to secure the prize of European football for 2023/24.
Jamal Musiala's career in numbers
The exciting Bayern Munich attacker who is famed for his dribbling ability has been setting records from the start.
Official Bundesliga transfer centre: summer 2023
Find out all the ins and outs across Germany's second division ahead of the 2023/24 campaign...
Official Bundesliga transfer centre: summer 2023
Find out all the ins and outs across the Bundesliga ahead of the 2023/24 campaign...