Munich - If you'd have taken even a cursory glance at the early December standings, you'd have been well within your rights to think 2013/14 had the potential to be the season Bayer 04 Leverkusen might finally lay their unwanted reputation as Bundesliga bottlers to rest.
At the time, on the back of Matchday 15's gutsy 1-0 win over Borussia Dortmund at the Signal Iduna Park, the gap on league leaders FC Bayern München stood at just four points. Skip to the present day, however, and the deficit now reads an insurmountable 22.
Gone is the dogged and counter-attacking mindset that forced blood-thirsty Bayern to walk away from the BayArena with just a point to show for their dominant endeavours on Matchday 8, and later got the better of BVB. Lars Bender and the gang have never claimed to be the most watertight of sides defensively, but they at least had a keen eye for the transition working in their favour. Unfortunately, it's a decisive facet of their game that seems to have deserted them.
Closer inspection of the league table also highlights Bayer's misfortunes further up the field, with Sami Hyypia's men currently the only top-five representative still to hit the 40-goal mark this season. Leverkusen's three-pronged attack of Sidney Sam, Heung-Min Son and Stefan Kießling are responsible for 26 of their side's 39 league strikes in 2013/14, yet one goal apiece is all each member of the prolific-come-toothless trio has managed since the winter break.
“We’re very worried we might throw away the targets we set ourselves for the season,” bemoaned Bayer sporting director Rudi Völler in the wake of last weekend’s 1-0 reverse at home to 1. FSV Mainz 05, alarmingly die Werkself’s eighth defeat in their last 11 outings in all competitions following their Son-inspired win over Dortmund. “We don’t look at all relaxed. We have to turn things around.”
BVB’s mini revival hasn’t helped matters, after die Schwarz-Gelben recently usurped Hyypia’s faltering charges as leaders of a six-man chasing pack jockeying for a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League behind champions elect Bayern. Of the lot, only Borussia Mönchengladbach have amassed fewer points (three) than third-placed Leverkusen (six) in their last five games.
Caught in a tailspin
There is, however, a credible explanation for their seasonal affective slump. The five-time Bundesliga runners-up were pushed to within an inch of their lives in the group stages of the Champions League, at a time when they began to suffer closer to home, losing four games on the trot before being of the cup by 1. FC Kaiserslautern earlier this year. Their subsequent first-leg last 16 humbling at the hands of Paris Saint Germain, meanwhile, only served to consolidate the idea that Leverkusen do not yet have the manpower to challenge on three fronts.
In that sense, the Bundesliga has to take precedence over the glitz and glamour of the European rat race in the years ahead. Neverkusen has long been a tag the Bayer fans have been keen to discard, but in the context of their recent plunge, a top-four finish come May would surely represent a reasonable return for a featherweight squad admittedly four or five stardust-sprinkled players short of being in a genuine position to lift the coveted Meisterschale for the first time.
Check out these weird and wonderful Carnival moments involving the likes of Leverkusen, Dortmund and Bayern courtesy of the Bundesliga's official YouTube channel: