He may not have been named among the contenders for the Golden Boy award this time around, but for Bayer Leverkusen wunderkind Florian Wirtz the months ahead will be all about getting back to his 100 percent brilliant best in order to play a significant part in what looks set to be an exciting season for the Werkself.
Wirtz will no doubt have eagerly eyed the 2022/23 Bundesliga fixture list - which dropped on Friday - and targeted a game for his much-anticipated return. Having been out since sustaining a cruciate ligament rupture against Cologne last March, the 19-year-old attacking midfield magician's mesmerising skills have been noticeably absent from Germany's top division ever since.
The Under-21 European champion with Germany enjoyed his best ever start to a campaign last season, racking up four goals and six assists in his first seven Bundesliga games. However, having featured in just nine top-flight matches in 2022, Wirtz's omission from the Top Boy list of contenders is perhaps more understandable, particularly given that his return could yet take some time.
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"Things are going well so far," Leverkusen coach Gerardo Seoane said of his player's recovery last month when speaking to the DPA news agency. "It could be that things go quickly [while] it also depends on how disciplined and hard-working [Florian] is.
"[He could return] in October or probably November. If he's fit and can train, he might get a call-up to the squad [this year], but I don't expect Florian back until 2023," the Bayer tactician added.
It has, of course, happened that players have returned far quicker than initially expected and with Leverkusen set to be involved in key Bundesliga and Champions League fixtures in the autumn, Wirtz will be hugely motivated to do everything he can to hit the training pitches ahead of time.
"It annoys him that he can't be on the pitch," Seoane said. "Watching games is the worst [but] we have a good feeling about his personality and his soul," the Swiss coach added.
If both his personality and soul are mirrored in any way by his uplifting, on-field feats, Wirtz is set fair. A player of immense ability who can appear to make time stand still under pressure in order to pick out that inch-perfect pass or finish a flowing move with the calmest of touches would fit into any Grade A side the world over.
The first player under 19 to net 11 Bundesliga goals, Wirtz was also at one point the division's youngest ever scorer at 17. "In almost every game, he makes some kind of history," Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky once said of his talented teammate. No wonder, then, that the club recently handed Wirtz a contract extension to keep him at the BayArena until 2027.
Leverkusen enjoyed their first top three finish in six years despite injury setbacks during the campaign to the likes of top striker Patrik Schick, Jeremie Frimpong and Wirtz. An incredible run-in saw the side from North Rhine-Westphalia win six and draw one of their last eight games in 2021/22, earning them qualification for the Champions League group stages for the 13th time in the club's history.
Fans of Die Werkself and Germany will now be hoping the loss of the one-time Cologne youth-team player is short lived, particularly with the FIFA World Cup set to kick off on 21 November.
Wirtz won the last of his four senior Germany caps in the 4-0 qualifying victory against North Macedonia - a game in which he laid on an assist - last October. For national coach Hansi Flick, Gerardo Seoane and football fans the world over, seeing Florian Wirtz on the 2023 Golden Boy list would be all the more satisfying following a successful return to action for club and country.
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