The competitive on-field return of Bayer Leverkusen's string-pulling midfield pearl Florian Wirtz is finally within sight and has coach Xabi Alonso and his Werkself crew alive with anticipation.
An upturn in domestic fortunes prior to the World Cup break saw B04 collect three Bundesliga wins on the bounce, which helped to lift the previously flagging spirits of fans on the eastern banks of the River Rhine. Bayer's worst-ever start to a top-flight season ended in the dismissal of coach Gerardo Seoane, and although the high-profile appointment of Alonso briefly lifted the gloom, it would be seven games before Leverkusen would begin to click.
Throughout it all, there appeared to be a key ingredient missing, something that was not lost on the passionate faithful at the BayArena, who had witnessed their heroes produce different types of records in the previous campaign.
A club best number of goals scored in 2021/22 (80) went in tandem with some of the best attacking play in the division and combined to push Bayer to a third-place finish and a return to the Champions League group stages.
Watch: Wirtz and the key players for Leverkusen last season
Confidence and momentum meant that the Werkself were able to make do without Wirtz from the moment the 19-year-old went down with a ruptured cruciate against Cologne on March 13, but that hasn't been the case for large parts this term, which is why Alonso and Co. are keen for their gifted teen to bring the attacking magic back to Bayer.
"We have a lot of young players in the team, which is a strength because we have a lot of energy on the pitch, a lot of pace," Wirtz commented with Leverkusen flying high last season. Surrounded by the likes of the mesmerising Moussa Diaby and tireless Jeremie Frimpong (seriously injured on the same afternoon as Wirtz), B04 also had the immense Patrik Schick firing up front, the Czech eventually weighing in with a whopping 24 goals in 27 Bundesliga games to finish as the division's second-highest marksman.
Wirtz had a hand in nine of Schick's successful strikes and was involved in 17 of Bayer's 80 goals in last season's top-flight campaign. Jump back to the same stage last season - i.e. after 15 games - and Leverkusen had scored 37 times compared to the 25 times they have hit the target this term.
They are also nine points worse off this time around compared to last year while Schick has been much quieter in front of the target, the 26-year-old scoring just twice in 11 Bundesliga appearances to date.
As wonderful as he is, Wirtz's absence cannot be attributed to all of Leverkusen's previous woes this season. Without the magic wand of his tremendous touch, however, or those penetrating runs through the middle and slick, incisive passes that can slice open the meanest of defences, the Factory Workers - as Bayer are affectionately known - have had to fight harder for their take-home pay.
To that end, what will have fans of the five-time Bundesliga runners-up really buzzing is that Wirtz's comeback will almost certainly improve a team that finally hit form with November's winning streak. Leverkusen scored nine times in successive victories against Union Berlin - the Bundesliga's long-time leaders - Cologne and Stuttgart.
Diaby and Frimpong are once again purring while there have also been star turns from Mitchel Bakker and promise shown by summer arrival Adam Hlozek. Schick, meanwhile, is hoping to ignite his season following adductor problems and will, as much as anyone, be delighted to see Wirtz back in the fold in January.
"The rehab was excellent, that gave me a good feeling and I sense the knee is very stable, which meant that I could fully challenge and show the others what I can do; there is no mental block," Wirtz said in a recent interview with Transfermarkt. "My head is ready to go fully into challenges and do everything with both legs," the 2020 winner of the Fritz Walter Gold Medal, awarded in Germany to elite youth players, added.
Wirtz, who has four senior Germany caps, would likely have been with the squad at the World Cup but missed out on the tournament after all concerned agreed that it would serve the player better to concentrate fully on rest and recovery. "After talking to the doctors, the coach [Hansi Flick] said that I should focus on getting fit and to a top level and that he can’t wait to see me back in the team [in the future]," the 2021 UEFA European Under-21 Championship winner explained.
Flick's loss will be very much Alonso's gain, with the former Bayern Munich midfielder already making a big impression on his new players at Leverkusen.
"Xabi is a great coach, very knowledgeable, and I feel we are now getting back on the right path," Wirtz said of the former Real Sociedad B tactician. "You definitely notice in the dressing room that you are now working with someone who, as a player, has won many titles, something that you dream of yourself."
Leverkusen, then, appear well set to start a New Year afresh and for Wirtz, the chance to hit the pitch for the first time since signing a one-year contract extension in the summer can't come soon enough. "I just feel really good here," he told Bayer's official website. "[In extending my stay], I wanted to send a message to the club and the team.
"Patrik Schick also extended to 2027, Adam Hlozek signed a deal to 2027. We've got a good team and we want to build something here," he continued.
"I've had great support from the start [of my comeback] from all sides: from my family as well as the club and my friends," Wirtz continued. "The doctor who operated on me was very confident in his discussions with me. That feedback motivated me. It's gone great since then including in cooperation with the medical team at the club. [I've been] in exactly the right hands here."
Leverkusen's midfield will soon be in just as capable hands once the club campaign resumes, with Die Werkself getting back underway at Borussia Mönchengladbach on 22 January. It could be a case of all the stars aligning this winter for a Bayer team that will want to hit the ground running. "We have a lot to give and we want to show that to all Bayer 04 fans, and even to those who aren't our fans just yet," Wirtz concluded.
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