Leverkusen - FC Bayern Munich aside, Bayer 04 Leverkusen are the only club to have finished in the top half of the table for the past ten seasons running and they have missed out on a place in Europe only twice in that period. The Werkself are a Bundesliga heavyweight, and come up short in just one department: it's now 20 years since they last won anything.
Kießling in it for the long haul
did, at any rate, pick up the 2012/13 individual top scorer's canon and it was down in no small part to the Franconian frontman's 25-goal haul - a new club season record, incidentally - that Bayer secured third place in the final standings and with it, direct qualification for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.
At 29, Kießling is in the form of his life and he incorporates the current Leverkusen side like few others. Now going into his eighth season with the club, and having just penned a contract extension through to 2017, he has made the small city on the Rhine his home-from-home and while there is apparently no place for him in the current national team set-up, he has become all the more indispensable for Bayer.
That in itself poses something of a problem, because should he be unavailable due to injury or suspension, head coach Sami Hyypiä could find himself stretched for alternatives in the central striking role. All the more so since the departure to Chelsea FC of Andre Schürrle, who chipped in with eleven goals and seven assists last season, as well as forming an excellent frontline partnership with Kießling.
New faces front and back
Not that Bayer have been slow to plug the gap, snapping up South Korean shooting star Heung Min Son from Hamburger SV and versatile Australian international Robbie Kruse from relegated Fortuna Düsseldorf. With Son really blossoming as a goalscorer, netting twelve for HSV last season, and Kruse having the happy knack of setting them up (eight direct assists last time out), Hyypiä certainly has the personnel now to be able to mix things up a bit more and inject an added shot of unpredictability into his team.
At the defensive end of the park, Spanish veteran Andres Palop has been brought on board as an alternative back-up keeper to Bernd Leno, with Italy U-21 international Giulio Donati, Bosnian old hand Emer Spahic and 19-year-old Greek prospect Konstantinos Stafylidis all fresh on the books as well - not forgetting former Germany international right back Roberto Hilbert, back in the Bundesliga after three years in Istanbul with Besiktas JK.
With eleven players having left the club all-told over the summer, senior squad regulars Michal Kadlec, Daniel Carvajal, Daniel Schwaab and Manuel Friedrich among them, Bayer are clearly in for a period of adjustment with a rejigged team. The overall impression, however, is of a squad with perhaps greater strength in depth to it than last season, which Bayer finished just a point behind second-place Dortmund.
For Hyypiä, now in sole charge after co-coach Sascha Lewandowski returned of his own volition to youth team duties, the challenge is to steer the team successfully through the group phase of the UEFA Champions League while simultaneously ensuring they remain on course to qualify once again for Europe's premier club tournament. The competition is tough on both fronts, with FC Bayern, Dortmund and perhaps Schalke 04 leading the way in the Bundesliga. Bayer are looking well-placed for another good season, regardless - a first piece of silverware since their 1993 DFB Cup success would be a real bonus this time around, but it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.
Tobias Gonscherowski/Angus Davison