Gerardo Seoane has Bayer Leverkusen sitting pretty in second place, behind defending champions Bayern Munich on goal difference ahead of Matchday 8's top-of-the-table clash at the BayArena. Is the Swiss coach the man to finally get 'the Eternal Bridesmaids' hitched?
Between 1999 and 2002, Leverkusen became far more familiar with being jilted on their big day than any team could wish to be. Christoph Daum’s men trailed Bayern by two points at the halfway stage of 1999/00, but had opened up a three-point lead ahead of the final weekend of the campaign. All they had to do was beat promoted Unterhaching, a team already assured of their place in the division for another year. It proved easier said than done.
Midfield talisman Michael Ballack put though his own net in the 20th minute, by which point Bayern were already 3-1 up at home to Werder Bremen. Bayern didn’t add to their lead, but Unterhaching did. Leverkusen lost 2-0, and with it went their chance of claiming a maiden Bundesliga title - on goal difference. There was a growing feeling that it just wasn’t meant to be. The 'treble horror' of 2001/02 confirmed that beyond any doubt.
It should have been Leverkusen's year. With three games of the season remaining, Ballack and Co. had a five-point advantage at the top of the Bundesliga, were through to the DFB Cup final and had dumped out Liverpool and Manchester United on their way to setting up a winner-takes-all showdown with Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League.
Déjà-vu descended on the BayArena as Leverkusen lost back-to-back league games to Bremen and relegation-threatened Nuremberg, while Borussia Dortmund scraped wins over Cologne and Hamburg to climb above Klaus Toppmöller's faltering title challengers in the standings. Leverkusen returned to winning ways on the final day against Hertha Berlin, but it was too late. Dortmund beat Bremen to seal the title with a two-point swing.
Leverkusen had two shots at redemption - they didn't take either of them. A 3-1 DFB Cup final defeat to Schalke underlined their domestic woes. A moment of Zinedine Zidane magic at Hampden Park compounded Bayer's misery. In the space of 11 days, Die Werkself’s hopes and dreams had come crashing down around them. The violins are still playing.
Twenty seasons on, Bayer remain without a single piece of silverware since their 1992/93 DFB Cup triumph. Last term, they led the Bundesliga standings until a last-gasp defeat to Bayern on Matchday 12 sent them spiralling and coach Peter Bosz towards the exit door. Although interim boss Hannes Wolf rescued a top-six finish, it was never going to be more than a one-season stand.
Leverkusen had already been wooed by Seoane. A former Swiss Super League player, he steered an unfancied Luzern team to a third-placed finish in his first senior coaching post in 2018. Three successive titles and a Swiss Cup followed with Young Boys, who enjoyed Champions League football for the first time under his watchful gaze with Seoane having ended a 32-year wait for a championship win. The 42-year-old left for Bayer as the most successful coach in the club's history.
Less than half a year in, Seoane and new employers Leverkusen are shaping up to be a match made in heaven. Die Werkself have claimed 16 points from the first 21 on offer in the Bundesliga, whilst scoring a club record 20 goals. They're also through to the DFB Cup second round and have won their opening two UEFA Europa League fixtures, including an impressive 4-0 drubbing of Celtic in Glasgow. A 4-3 defeat to an Erling Haaland-inspired Dortmund is the only blot on the copybook - not that there's any shame in coming up short when you're being hunted down by the Terminator.
Seoane's seamless cross-border transition is testament to the effectiveness of his playing philosophy. In attack, wingers move inside to enable wide defenders to overload the flanks - at times, it's more like Leverkusen are playing with a seven-man forward line. Defensively, it's not uncommon for a central midfielder to drop back to form a three-man backline. Intense pressing is demanded of everyone. High balls are encouraged, even more so given the tools at his disposal.
The model target man, lone striker Patrik Schick has continued his UEFA Euro 2020 joint-top-scoring form with six Bundesliga goals. Four have come by way of a Florian Wirtz assist - arguably the heartbeat of the team. Pulling the strings in a No.10 role, the 18-year-old has had a direct hand in nine of Leverkusen's 20 Bundesliga goals. League-wide, only Haaland boasts a greater goal involvement (11 goals) than the Germany international, who has scored, assisted or both in all six of his appearances so far this term.
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Completing Seoane's creative cabal, France international Moussa Diaby is teasing career-best form following Leon Bailey's departure to Aston Villa, while Jeremie Frimpong and Mitchel Bakker are given license to roam as advanced full-backs. Midfielders Charles Aranguiz and Kerem Demirbay shield a back four that's conceded just seven times and a last line of defence in Lukas Hradecky, who's repelled a league-leading 82 per cent of shots on his goal.
Seoane's winning formula is further supplemented by a squad deep in quality. From Daley Sinkgraven through Nadiem Amiri and Robert Andrich to forwards Amine Adli, Karim Bellarabi, Paulinho and Lucas Alario, the Swiss tactician is blessed with options of the international, seasoned and up-and-coming variety. He also has the likes of Julian Baumgartlinger, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Edmond Tapsoba still to return from injury. That's two big ticks next to plans B and C, should Seoane's A-game come unstuck.
Bayern provide the biggest test yet of Leverkusen's title credentials under Seoane. The record champions are bidding to defend their Bundesliga crown for a record-extending 10th season in a row. They are the division's top scorers with 24 goals - and haven't failed to fire in 82 competitive games - but otherwise the Bundesliga's top two are neck-and-neck after seven rounds of fixtures.
Leverkusen have been promised heaven before, only to be put through hell. Defeat to Bayern might feel like a shot through the heart, but they wouldn't need to kiss goodbye to those title aspirations at such an early stage in the campaign. A positive result, on the other hand, will be a strong indication that Seoane has what it takes to drop the 'Neverkusen' tag, and give love at Leverkusen a good name.