With a DFB Cup final on the horizon and Europa League glory in their sights, Peter Bosz has made Bayer Leverkusen a force to be reckoned with once more. Could he be the man to shake the club’s ‘Neverkusen’ tag once and for all?
‘Always the bridesmaid’ comes to mind when thinking of Leverkusen, five-time Bundesliga runners-up and owners of a solitary DFB Cup and UEFA Cup apiece.
For a club with long-held lofty ambitions, coming second is not enough and it represents a frustrating reality for Die Werkself supporters, fed up with the 'Neverkusen' moniker that has accompanied them for 18 years. On the cusp of one of the greatest seasons in the history of club football, Leverkusen’s treble hopefuls would end that 2001/02 campaign with a trio of silver medals.
Across a miserable 11 days at the end of May 2002, they first came up a point short of Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga title race, then lost 4-2 to Schalke in the DFB Cup final, before a Zinedine Zidane-inspired Real Madrid pipped them to Champions League glory in Glasgow.
Thus, ‘Neverkusen’ was born, reinforced further by the Mesut Özil-led cup final defeat to Werder Bremen in 2008/09, as well as the 2010/11 Bundesliga runners-up medal that saw the club - again - come up short of Dortmund, albeit in less agonising fashion than 2002.
But Leverkusen have reason to cheer again in the guise of Bosz’s current incarnation of the club.
So accustomed are they to near misses, Leverkusen fans certainly won’t be counting their chickens quite yet, but the Dutchman has led them to their first domestic cup final since that loss to Werder 11 years ago, while they are still in Europa League contention following a 3-1 victory over Rangers in the first leg of their Round of 16 tie.
Bosz steered Die Werkself to a 1-0 victory over Mainz on Matchday 34, giving the 56-year-old a win ratio (58.8 per cent) that is bettered only by Sascha Lewandowski (60 per cent) among all his predecessors with more than seven games under their belt.
Watch: Bosz's Bundesliga reboot with Bayer
Bosz’s record currently reads: P51, W30, D7, L14. For comparison, Lewandowski’s was P45, W27, D11, L7, while Klaus Topmöller - the man who came so close to that 2002 clean sweep - won 47 per cent of his games and left Leverkusen with a record of P55, W26, D11, L18.
It’s a record that stacks up and the Leverkusen hierarchy are clearly delighted with their progress under Bosz so far, rewarding the former Ajax man with a two-year contract extension back in January. That should see him stay at the club until 2022 at the very least.
"He has the crucial ability to develop a team continually,” said Leverkusen legend and sporting director Rudi Völler. "Peter's approach to the game fits in perfectly with us as Leverkusen have played aggressive, high-tempo football with joy for many years.”
Indeed, club and coach seem a great fit and Bosz shares the same desire for silverware as the fans.
"We're working hard every day to create the conditions to win titles, and look forward to continuing to make progress with Leverkusen," he said after penning his contract extension.
Seeing off serial trophy hoarders Bayern in the DFB Cup showpiece on 4 July will be no easy feat, but it is evident that Bosz already has the team moving in the right direction, and they are one of just two teams to beat the record champions under Hansi Flick.
Should they see off Rangers in their Europa League tie it will be their first appearance in the last-eight of a UEFA competition since their 2007/08 UEFA Cup quarter-final exit to Zenit St. Petersburg. And the prospect of then tackling the revamped final-eight tournament on home soil in Germany, and winning it in the home of their neighbouring rivals Cologne, makes it an even more tantalising one.
It’s never straightforward when it comes to Leverkusen, but triumphing in the DFB Cup final coupled with a deep run in the Europa League would mark a fine return for their first full season under Bosz.
Should they continue on this course over the next two years and manage to add a trophy or two to the BayArena cabinet, they may just shake their unwanted nickname and be ‘Neverkusen’ no more.