Leverkusen - With the Bundesliga restart edging ever nearer, Bayern Munich's efforts to wrestle the title from holders Borussia Dortmund comes sharper into focus. Inevitably, everything and everyone else is relegated into the background.
At present, runaway leaders Bayern's closest contenders are Bayer 04 Leverkusen who, despite flying largely under the radar for the early part of the campaign, steadfastly racked up the points to go in second over the winter break. But do Sami Hyypiä's side have the wherewithal to maintain their high-flying status, or will they nosedive into the business end of the season?
On the face of it, Leverkusen appear to be well equipped to tackle the title run-in. Coaching duo Hyypiä and Sascha Lewandowski have been at the helm since April 2012 and preside over a settled and exciting young team. , and the league's leading scorer have all been superb in attack, with the side averaging just under two goals per game.
Four league defeats, five clean sheets and 22 goals conceded is a respectable return at the other end, while losing to Wolfsburg in the DFB Cup third round means their schedule will be less hectic in the run-in. Their 33 points accrued thus far is only one fewer than eventual winners Dortmund had at the same stage last season.
Yet a look at the history books gives the BayArena faithful far less cause for optimism. In three of the last five seasons Leverkusen's form has tailed off alarmingly after the winter break. They managed just 24, 17 and 21 points in the latter half of the 2009/10, 2008/09 and 2007/08 campaigns respectively, having picked up 35, 32 and 30 points in the first halves. Furthermore, they have twice led the standings at the midway stage (in 2009/10 and 2001/02), but never won the Bundesliga.
Their reputation for coming tantalisingly close to the prize - a 1993 DFB Cup triumph aside - has earned them the nickname 'Neverkusen'. That may sound harsh, but only by getting their hands on some silverware will they be able to shed such unwanted monikers.
Over the years, Leverkusen have had large, talented squads filled with international players. Experienced coaches have come and gone, yet the result has remained the same: B04 end up empty-handed. Each trophyless year that passes perpetuates the problem, adding extra psychological pressure on the team to succeed.
So should they be written off already? Perhaps not. Kießling is in the form of his life and currently leads the Bundesliga scoring chart with twelve goals after finishing top of the pile in the 2012 calendar year too, with 25.
More importantly, however, may be Hyypiä's influence. The Finn had a glittering career and was part of Liverpool's UEFA Champions League-winning side in 2005. Having gone all the way in such a tough competition, the 39-year-old could be just the man to break 'Neverkusen's' negative cycle.