Bremen - While FC Schalke 04, Borussia Dortmund and even Eintracht Frankfurt have all been touted as potential challengers to Bayern Munich’s 23rd Bundesliga title this season, Bayer 04 Leverkusen have quietly been going about their own thing away from the media spotlight.
But that's all about to change now, especially after Bayer's 4-1 win at Werder Bremen took the team guided by Sascha Lewandowski and Sami Hyypiä into second spot - and the role of Bayern’s chief challengers.
After starting the season with just four points from their first four games and with many a doubt raised about the benefits of their coaching double-act, few would have predicted such a rise.
"We really didn’t start the season well, but we were always convinced about our concept and we kept our patience," said the club’s sporting director and former Germany striker Rudi Völler. "The coaching team of Sascha Lewandowski and Sami Hyypiä are doing a great job."
With 15 points from their last six games, it stands to reason that the only team to have beaten Bayern all season should now be their biggest challengers. So what is there secret?
Efficiency, according to their captain Simon Rolfes, has been the key to their rise through the ranks. The ability to dose the energy for when it is needed and not waste any unnecessarily, is a policy practically forced upon them by a rhythm of a game almost every three days. “We have had less possession this season because we attack quicker when we have the ball," said Rolfes, whose goal made it 3-1 last night.
Second no shame
Indeed, a year ago Bayer were held to a draw by Bremen despite having ten per cent more possession than they did on Wednesday night and despite touching the ball 100 times more. Some more successful streamlining could well have some of their fans dreaming of a serious title tilt, despite a ten-point deficit on the runaway league leaders. Not Stefan Kießling, though: “We mustn’t even think about that. We have only just made it into such a high position and our priority is to keep an eye on what’s going on over our shoulders."
That’s because finishing second this season would not be something to be ashamed of - unlike in 1999/2000 when they had the exact same tally of 27 points after 14 games of the season, only to throw away the title on the final day of the season with defeat to Unterhaching. "If we can finish second, then that would mean something to us," added Kießling.
There is still a long way to go, of course, and a lot can still change over the remaining 20 games of the season, starting this weekend when Leverkusen welcome 1. FC Nuremberg to the BayArena.
"They are our toughest opponents this week," warned Völler, who has witnessed often enough already how harmful it can be to get ahead of yourself. "We can’t let the same thing happen to us which happened to Borussia Dortmund." Völler was referring to the Westphalians' surprise draw with Fortuna Düsseldorf in midweek. "It’s important that we don’t rest on our laurels after the Bremen win."
If two-goal hero Gonzalo Castro can hit anything like the form he showed at the Weserstadion, there is no risk of that happening. "We were solid at the back and very dangerous on the counter attack," said the goalscoring midfielder. "Therefore, we deserved to win 4-1. You’ve got to take your chances if you want to win games."