Munich - As FC Bayern Munich continue to march away at the Bundesliga summit, the battle for second has all the makings of an enthralling run-in as we head into the home stretch of the 2012/13 campaign.
Nine and twelve points off the top respectively, Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund are Bayern's only semi-realistic contenders for the title. Die Werkself have quietly but convincingly maintained their position in behind the front runners, while BVB, despite a number of setbacks pre-winter break, are gearing up for a second half of the season sprint. Just three points separate the two in the standings at present, but having occupied second spot since Matchday 14, Leverkusen are unlikely to pass up the silver medal without a fight.
Leverkusen have a reputation for being the Bundesliga's 'eternal bridesmaids', but after missing out on the UEFA Champions League last season, a return to Europe's premier club competition was always likely to be a priority this term. That they're on course to achieve just that is in large part down to their dynamic coaching duo of Sami Hyypiä and Sascha Lewandowski, who between them have brought stability to a side that struggled to gel under former boss Robin Dutt.
Chief goalscorer Stefan Kießling and the vibrance of midfielders Andre Schürrle and Gonzalo Castro may have stolen the limelight at times, but it should noted that Bayer are unbeaten on home soil under Hyypiä and Lewandowski dating back to 3 March 2012. Indeed, they are currently the Bundesliga's in-form team having taken 18 points from a possible 21 in recent matches despite hitting the woodwork ten times - more than any other team this season.
The Dortmund formula
Compact at the back, where Hyypiä's own experience as a player has no doubt proven priceless, Bayer are also able to break forward at pace. They're often quick out of the blocks too - only Dortmund (seven) have scored more goals in the opening quarter of an hour than Leverkusen (six), but still die Werkself have netted more times in the first half than any other Bundesliga side (21).
Interestingly there are several parallels to be drawn between Leverkusen's style of play and Dortmund's own tactical approach during Jürgen Klopp's first title-winning season in 2010/11. A solid defence, anchored around Hyypiä's young protege Philipp Wollscheid, provides Lars Bender and Simon Rolfes with a solid base from which to play the ball forward at speed in a similar vein to how Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender did for Dortmund two years ago. Schürrle and Castro provide fluidity in wide areas, while Kießling has both the strength to hold up play and the pace to take on the last man, all of which contribute to making Leverkusen into a well-oiled counterattacking machine.
Setting a new trend
Dortmund, meanwhile, have taken their performances a step further since then by improving their quality in possession, misplacing just 17 per cent of their passes - Bayern are the sole side ahead of them in that department. Again only the league leaders can better BVB's 40 goals this season, eleven of which have come from set-pieces, but as opposed to Leverkusen relying largely on Kießling, the reigning champions possess a goal threat throughout their squad.
The Dortmund midfielders have netted 23 times between them, while their defence have chipped in with a further five - the second highest amount of any Bundesliga backline. BVB have needed just 290 efforts on goal to reach their tally of 40, a ratio bettered only by Hannover and Düsseldorf. Such unerring efficiency, combined with a solid defence, has arguably been the chief factor in the Yellow-Blacks' resurgent form either side of the festive pause.
Down to the wire
Given that Jürgen Klopp's young charges are willing to work as hard off the ball as they do on it, Leverkusen are far from sure of second spot. Die Werkself's performances so far this season are to be admired, but winless at home against Dortmund in their last five attempts (three losses, two draws), the upcoming Matchday 20 encounter between the two sides could go a long way to deciding who does win the race for second place.