With 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.
2020's DFB Cup final defeat to Bayern Munich continued in the same vein, but Leverkusen have good reason to believe that jinx could soon end, under the guidance of Bosz.
So accustomed are they to near misses, Leverkusen fans certainly won’t be counting their chickens quite yet, but the Dutchman does know what it takes to reach the final of the Europa League, having got their with former club Ajax in 2017, and they are right in 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 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.
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 having tasted defeat in one final this summer, the hunger and desire is well and truly there for a concerted effort to set the record straight in the Europa League.
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.