The Werkself romped to a 4-0 victory over bottom club VfB Stuttgart on Bundesliga Matchday 25, giving coach Roger Schmidt a welcome present on his 48th birthday. Moreover, it marked Leverkusen’s fifth consecutive triumph in all competitions - a run in which they have also kept five clean sheets.
Prior to their current hot streak, however, the outlook was considerably bleaker for the Rhineland club. Leverkusen stumbled into 2015, taking just five points from the first 15 on offer and slipping down to sixth in the standings - their lowest ebb in the entire season to date. A 2-2 draw with FC Augsburg in February, in which they conceded a 94th-minute equaliser, preceded what Schmidt viewed as a timely distraction in European competition - which ultimately ended in heartache for Bayer after a penalty shoot-out defeat to Club Atletico de Madrid.
Since the stalemate with Augsburg, however, Bayer have beaten SC Freiburg, 1. FC Kaiserslautern in the last 16 of the DFB Cup and SC Paderborn, before their recent demolition of Stuttgart. Five victories, 11 goals, eight different scorers and none conceded. “My team were fantastic,” said an understandably satisfied Schmidt after Friday’s win. His players are building momentum when it matters most, just as the season is entering its decisive phase.
Crucial meeting with Schalke
Leverkusen’s run has left them in fourth in the Bundesliga table, steeled for a battle for Champions League qualification with a handful of other clubs. Indeed, the main threat to their aim of a top-four finish comes from FC Schalke 04, who are three points adrift in fifth. The stakes, then, could hardly be higher on Matchday 26 when Leverkusen travel to Gelsenkirchen to face the Royal Blues in a veritable six-pointer at the Veltins Arena.
Ironically enough, Schalke also suffered the narrowest of losses to Spanish opposition in the last 16 of Europe's premier club competition, despite a fearless display away to Real Madrid CF in their second-leg tie. Beat die Knappen and Schmidt’s charges would have a significant advantage going into the home straight; lose and they would open the door to Roberto Di Matteo's men to pip them to the post.
'We were at the top of our game'
“At the end of the season we want to be competing at the top of the table and to do that you need to get results, especially at the business end of the campaign,” said captain Simon Rolfes after the Stuttgart win. “We were at the top of our game, incredibly efficient and […] we didn’t rest on our laurels even when it was 3-0. We can be pleased with that.”
Another similarly clinical outing would doubtless be welcomed, even if recent history favours Schalke ahead of Leverkusen’s visit: Bayer have only beaten the Royal Blues away once in the last five years. Yet as their display against Stuttgart showed, under Schmidt, Leverkusen give little credence to bad omens.