Leverkusen - At the start of the season few would have expected Bayer 04 Leverkusen to be FC Bayern Munich's closest competitors come the winter break. Eleven points may separate the two sides, but der Werkself have every right to hold their heads up high ahead of their final Bundesliga match of 2012 against Hamburger SV on Saturday (kick-off 15:30 CET).
Bump in the road
Bayer's managerial duo of Sami Hyypiä and Sascha Lewandowski have moulded a squad into an outfit capable of turning their potential into points, something they always believed they could do, as top goalscorer Stefan Kießling told bundesliga.com: "I don't think it's come as a surprise. We've got a good team and can play really good football."
A 3-2 loss at Hannover on Matchday 16 brought an end to a run of four straight wins which have propelled Leverkusen into second place. However, instead of bemoaning missed opportunities, Lewandowski was pragmatic in highlighting where it went wrong for his side.
"We had problems in two or three one-on-one situations," said the 41-year-old tactician. "We controlled the game through our performance, tactics and style of play, but let it slip through our hands due to those mistakes. That's difficult for us to take."
Eye for goal
Leverkusen may not be as comfortable in possession as other contenders in the battle for Europe, but their firepower has been relentless of late, with Kießling in particular sorry to see the winter break come around so soon - the 28-year-old has netted 23 league goals in the calendar year, more than any other Bundesliga striker.
This term Kießling already has ten goals to his name and sits joint-top of the goalscoring charts in Germany's top flight alongside Vedad Ibisevic and Alexander Meier having opened the scoring on six occasions, including in the historic 2-1 win at Bayern Munich.
"Of course that was an important game," said Kießling of what many deemed a turning point in Leverkusen's season. "It was worth its weight in gold emotionally, but I don't think it gave us the 'push' as such."
Indeed, Kießling was more inclined to believe that such results, and their current league position, can be attributed to the improvements Bayer have made under Hyypiä and Lewandowski.
"You can see that we're operating as a unit on the pitch and that we can hold onto a 1-0 lead over the course of a match," explained the six-time German international. "We've also had matches in which we haven't been as good, but look at the mentality of the team. We've won those games. That's crucial."
Leverkusen are four points better off than they were at this stage last season, rendering criticism of their "unattractive" style unwarranted in Kießling's eyes: "That's not what it's about. We put in a really good performance against Schalke [a 2-0 win on Matchday 12], but we still only won three points."
Dinos in town
Though chasing Bayern at the Bundesliga summit is not in their thinking just yet, demonstrating a willingness to 'win ugly' is just as important to Leverkusen's fortunes as Kießling's goals. Teams can get tetchy in second place, but the striker knows it's crucial to "win our remaining matches" before "venturing into predictions".
Still, Leverkusen will fancy their chances of seeing out the year with another success against Hamburg, especially considering their unbeaten home record since Hyypiä and Lewandowski teamed up (seven wins, three draws). HSV are themselves no pushovers having taken ten points from a possible 15, but it's Leverkusen's mentality, which Kießling sees as the reason Bayer are so "high up the table", which could prove key come Saturday.
Interview by Tobias Gonscherowski, compiled by James Thorogood