Kai Havertz has been involved in more goals in all competitions than any Bundesliga-based German in 2020. Is he the man to finally get Bayer 'the Eternal Bridesmaids' Leverkusen hitched?
In 1996/97, Leverkusen led the Bundesliga standings twice - after Matchdays 2 and 16 - on goal difference. The Rhineland club were never more than five points adrift of the summit and had cut Bayern Munich's advantage to one with two rounds of fixtures remaining. Maximum points coupled with a Bayern slip-up was all they needed to tie the knot, but a 4-0 loss at local rivals Cologne on the penultimate match-day scuppered their plans for the big day. Bayer ended the campaign in second, two points adrift of the record champions and with an inferior goal difference.
Leverkusen were also-rans rather than nearly men over the course of the next two seasons. They finished third in 1997/98 - some 13 points behind promoted champions Kaiserslautern - and assumed the role of hunted for less than a week in 1998/99 as Bayern reclaimed their crown with a 15-point cushion on their nearest pursuers. Coach Christopher Daum had successfully assembled a team of genuine contenders, but the only title they would go on to acquire was the ignominous 'Bayer Neverkusen' moniker.
Between 1999 and 2002, Leverkusen became far more familiar with sloppy seconds than any team could wish to be. 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.
Deja 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 Topmöller'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 Hamden Park compounded Bayer's misery. In the space of 11 days, Die Werkself’s hopes and dreams had come crushing down around them. The violins are still playing.
Eighteen seasons on, Bayer are still chasing a first piece of silverware since their 1992/93 DFB Cup triumph. They finished runners-up for the fifth time in their Bundesliga history in 2010/11, albeit as clear second best to Jürgen Klopp's Dortmund. Top-six finishes have been achieved on all but three occassions, while last season’s fourth-in-the-table effort secured Champions League football after a two-year absence.
With only a third of 2019/20 remaining, Leverkusen are fifth in the standings thanks to a stellar return of 19 points from a possible 24 since the turn of the year. Only leaders Bayern - who lost at home to Peter Bosz's swashbuckling unit on Matchday 13 - have fared better in that time. As well as beating Dortmund and drawing with RB Leipzig in the league, Leverkusen have also accounted for Porto in the UEFA Europa League last-32, and have a DFB Cup semi-final to look forward to. The potential for treble heaven is on.
Watch: Leverkusen inflicted a first Bundesliga defeat on Bayern Munich interim coach Hansi Flick
Havertz has been, and holds, the key. His team-leading 17 goals from midfield helped Die Werkself clamber into the top four on the final day of last season. The Aachen-born Germany international featured in every game, celebrated 100 competitive appearances and became the first teenager in Bundesliga history to reach 17 goals in a single campaign. He turned 20 in June 2019, and duly kicked off 2019/20 by becoming the second youngest player - behind only Horst Koppel - to score 25 Bundesliga goals.
It was one of only two league goals during the first half of 2019/20, but Havertz has shown himself to be more spring chicken than winter warmer. Eleven his 17 top-flight efforts last term fell during the Rückründe. Eight games into 2020, he's had a direct hand in more goals than any other German player in the Bundesliga this calendar year (six goals, five assists), while his effort in the 4-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt took him past Klaus Fischer as the youngest player to reach 30 Bundesliga goals, aged 20 years and 270 days young.
"He's the full package," said Bosz of Havertz in February of 2020. "Since the turn of the year it's been the Kai Havertz we all knew last season. He's incredibly important for the team."
That's putting it mildly. Without Havertz's 17 goals and four assists in his 34 Bundesliga appearances last season, Leverkusen would have been 12 points worse off. They wouldn't have even have made the Europa League qualifying rounds - in fact, they would have finished 10th. Almost one year on, Bayer are fourth and only five points behind Bayern with nine rounds of fixtures remaining. Take away Havertz's six goals and assists, and Leverkusen would be on 39 instead of 47 points, outside the European qualification places altogether.
What's more, in the eight games so far this term Havertz has landed the proverbial Cupid's arrow, Leverkusen have claimed 22 points from a possible 24. In 2018/19, they only dropped points in three of the nine games in which he was directly involved in a goal. Not since the days of Ballack has a midfielder had such a marked influence on Bayer's fortunes.
"I feel like I've freed myself a bit. I'm back," Havertz told Sky Germany after Leverkusen's 4-0 win over Frankfurt. "Time has made me stronger a brought me to a higher level. I was lacking consistency in the first half of the season. There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders. When you're a young player, you go through such phases. After a few relatively bad games, your own fans start to doubt you. That's not easy."
Watch: Kai Havertz - "I'm not at my limit yet!"
Ballack can relate to his long-heralded successor more than most. Tears streaming, hands on hips: his is one of the most enduring images of the 2002 Champions League final defeat to Madrid. He could have had it all, but instead left the club for Bayern empty-handed. Even when retiring in 2012 - via a decorated spell with Chelsea and one last hurrah at Leverkusen - his reputation as a serial runner-up somewhat overshadowed his brilliance on the pitch. For the 12 major trophies he won with Kaiserslautern, Bayern and Chelsea, 'Little Kaiser' came out second best on 13 occasions for club and country.
Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler is optimistic the same fate won't befall Havertz. "There are no limits for him," Ballack's former Germany coach told kicker. "He has the running style and elegance of [Mesut] Özil and the physicality, robustness, aerial power and goal threat Michael [Ballack] had at his peak. He's become one of the most sought-after players in Europe."
Havertz, like Ballack before him, doesn't need silverware to validate his talent. But if Leverkusen are to be lucky in love again, there's more than a sneaking suspicion it'll be with King Kai pulling the [heart]strings.