Munich - They started this Bundesliga year as they had ended the last, on a losing note. Since going down 3-2 at SC Freiburg in the season reopener, however, Bayer 04 Leverkusen have got themselves firmly back on track with successive victories over VfB Stuttgart and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Already on eight goals this season
Those results have shored up Bayer's standing as FC Bayern München's closest pursuers, although 'close' is an admittedly relative term here given that the German, European and world champions have garnered 56 of a possible 60 points so far this season, leaving them 13 clear of Sami Hyypiä's charges from the compact city on the east bank of the Rhine.
That yawning gap notwithstanding, leading the best of the rest at this juncture in the race for a direct group berth in next season's UEFA Champions League remains a cause for general satisfaction in Leverkusen. The latest success, away to a Gladbach side among their direct rivals, was earned courtesy of a 62nd-minute strike from Heung-Min Son.
His eighth goal of the campaign was another eye-catching effort. As the home defence opened up in front of him, the South Korean shooting star teed up a pass from Sidney Sam and drilled a precise finish past Foals keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen into the corner of the net.
Potentially defining showdown with Schalke
“Sid's run into the channel gave me more space for the shot and made it the perfect situation for me. Luckily it came off and we won,” Son commented modestly after the match. “It was a very important game for us and for Gladbach as well, of course, so that's a big three points for us here. We'll enjoy the moment, but then we need to start focusing on making sure we follow up on it next week.” And with FC Schalke 04 due at the BayArena on Matchday 21, Son and Co. have a gilt-edged opportunity to move another significant step closer to one of those precious Champions League places.
Schalke are fourth in the standings on 37 points, six shy of their hosts this coming Saturday. They are also the only team in the division apart from FC Bayern to have won all three games since the recommencement of league action. Asked whether victory in the encounter would effectively seal Leverkusen's renewed place in European club football's elite tournament, Son said it was “still too early to make that claim, but we're in good shape at the moment and we've got home advantage against Schalke. If we can play like we did today then we've every chance of picking up another win - and that would leave us in a strong position.”
Man for the big occasion
As for the team's current position, the 21-year-old summer arrival from Hamburger SV acknowledged that it would be all the stronger but for “incredibly frustrating” slip-ups not only at Freiburg but also against other sides struggling for points, such as Eintracht Braunschweig and SV Werder Bremen. Gladbach are not the only notable scalp they have taken on their travels so far, with victories at Hertha Berlin and Borussia Dortmund also duly entered in the credit column. The latter was likewise earned by way of a single goal from Son - “the last time I scored,” he noted, adding that the wining goal at the Borussia Park was accordingly “good for my self-confidence. Hopefully I can maintain this kind of form and won't have to wait so long for the next goal”.
If he can conjure up a repeat performance against the men from Gelsenkirchen next time out, all the better. More important to South Korea's current Player of the Year, however, is that the team maintain their recent return to winning ways. Above and beyond the target of qualifying for next season's Champions League, Bayer - like Schalke - are still in the mix in the current edition. On the back of the weekend summit on the home front, they face the hardly less daunting prospect of Paris Saint-Germain FC in the first leg of the Round of 16. “We've got a few tough weeks coming up,” Son surmised. “We'll be prepared for them but obviously, that's a matter of a lot more hard work.”