Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen have lost top scorer Victor Boniface to injury and defensive stalwarts Odilon Kossounou and Edmond Tapsoba to the Africa Cup of Nations in January and February…
Boniface was due to represent Nigeria before picking up an injury which rules him out of both club and country duty until April, while Kossounou and Tapsoba will represent Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso respectively in Kossounou's homeland.
There, the Elephants kick-off the competition against Guinea-Bissau on 13 January, nearly a month out from the 11 February final at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan.
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All three have been key to Leverkusen's march to the top of the Bundesliga table. Boniface's team-high 10 goals have been complemented by a joint-best seven assists, while Kossounou and Tapsoba have helped form the league's tightest defence either side of Jonathan Tah.
"That's the calendar," said an agnostic Xabi Alonso at the prospect of losing those first-teamers, as well as Amine Adli to Morocco. "We lose some players, but we've seen that the others can step in. We'll work to have a competitive team but I'm not crying about it. I'm not a victim."
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Alonso has put together a well-drilled unit this season, one that invariably lines up in a 3-4-2-1 formation with Boniface ably supported by a double 10 in Florian Wirtz and Jonas Hofmann, while Álex Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong patrol the flanks.
Boniface, Hofmann and Grimaldo, as well as former Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka, were all new signings last summer, and the speed with which Alonso has got them to gel has caught the attention of the Bundesliga and beyond.
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Of Bayer's average starting line-up in the Hinrunde, four players started all 16 games, another four 15, two 14, and Tapsoba the fewest with a still considerable 13 of those available - surgery on a wrist injury last month affording Piero Hincapié a handful of games.
In the UEFA Europa League, Bayer are through to the last 16 with a perfect six wins from six in Group H, meanwhile. Josip Stanišić and Hincapié have played the most minutes in that competition, which has also seen the likes of Robert Andrich and Adam Hložek come to the fore. There is also a significant boost in the fact Nathan Tella has not travelled with Nigeria to AFCON.
Hincapié, a full Ecuador international, will pick up Tapsoba's place on the left of Bayer's back three on a full-time basis in January and February - assuming Burkina Faso follow up on qualifying top of their section with a run to the business end of the competition - and as a natural left footer he adds some welcome balance to the backline.
On the opposite side, Stanišić is a ready-made replacement for Kossounou. The Bayern Munich-owned youngster was signed on loan at the start of the season, and while the Benjamin Pavard-shaped gap on the right of the champions' defence will be his to fill in the longer term, he is Leverkusen's until the end of the campaign.
With Lukáš Hrádecký, Tah and Xhaka a spine running through Bayer's defence, Alonso will be confident that he has adequate cover for his Ivory Coast-bound defenders.
Watch: Highlights of Leverkusen's 4-0 win over Bochum
But scoring goals is perhaps the most difficult job in football, and fortunately for Leverkusen, they have one of the best in the business in reserve - one who was only in reserve at all this season due to groin and calf injuries - in Patrik Schick.
Schick scored 24 times in the Bundesliga two short seasons ago and was joint-top scorer alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at UEFA Euro 2020, and was back among the goals on Wednesday, hitting a hat-trick as Leverkusen beat Bochum 4-0 - his movement in the box almost as well-timed as his return to form with Boniface now out for the time being.
AFCON might hit Leverkusen harder than most this winter, but they are well-stocked to maintain their title challenge this season, and Werkself fans can remain optimistic of shaking their unwanted Neverkusen tag.
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