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Bayer Leverkusen making big strides under Roger Schmidt’s leadership

Leverkusen

It’s been a tough month for Bayer Leverkusen. In the German Cup, they held the German champions for 120 minutes, in the Champions League they held Spanish champions Atletico Madrid over two legs, but on both occasions, the Bundesliga outfit were eliminated on penalties.

Heartbreaking for their supporters. With nothing left to play domestically aside from cementing their spot in the German top flight’s quartet of Champions League places—Leverkusen are currently fourth, eight points clear of fifth place Schalke—it’d be easy for all those associated with the BayArena club to become engulfed by a malaise as the weeks tick down.

Instead, there is an enormous degree of excitement surrounding the club, perhaps more so than since Bayer made it to the final of the European Cup back in 2002. That’s because manager Roger Schmidt seems to be creating something pretty special at the BayArena.

The 48-year-old took the reins at Leverkusen back in April 2014 after Sami Hyypia failed to make an impact in Germany. While he made little differences in the latter stages of the previous Bundesliga campaign, anyone who had followed the progress of Schmidt’s previous club Red Bull Salzburg will have been aware that his preferred mantras take a while to implicate fully.

On the first day of the season against Borussia Dortmund they netted inside the first 10 seconds and while that opening day victory didn’t exactly pave the way for a stunning start to the season, the intentions of Schmidt’s Leverkusen were clear.

For a club that revere in their image as a working team—their nickname is Die Werkself—Schmidt has fashioned almost a perfect team. Bayer are irrepressible in their endeavours, unrelenting in their pressing and incisive in their offensive forays. While these punishing mantras would typically dictate that a team should wilt in the second portion of the season—just look at a lot of Marcelo Bielsa’s sides down the years—Leverkusen are defying that conception.

Ahead of their game with Mainz this weekend, Leverkusen have won five consecutive games and haven’t conceded a league goal since February. On the back of their Champions League elimination against Atletico they seemed to be in a battle to secure their status in the competition for next season. But instead of toiling in the wake of such disappointment, they rallied again.

In midweek, they were tipped to give Bayern massive problems in their German Cup quarter-final tie. And while Pep Guardiola’s illustrious outfit naturally bossed possession for long spells, Bayer stood admirably firm before running into Manuel Neuer and losing on penalties.

In truth, these glorious failures against Atleti and Bayern tie in with Leverkusen’s reputation for falling short on the big stage. In their entire 111-year history they only have two major honours in their trophy cabinet and despite finishing runner-up on five occasions in the last two decades, have never taken that final step and won the domestic title.

So this team is merely adhering to the “Neverkusen” stereotype, right? Well, in the case of Schmidt’s side, maybe not.

After all, they went to war with Atletico Madrid—arguably the most ferocious, hard-working team on the planet—for two matches and extra-time without looking out of place. Against Bayern, they were superb in containing their more illustrious opponents for long spells, again falling foul in the most harsh of eliminatory tactics.

Still not convinced? This is a side that has room for improvements too. In Bernd Leno they boast one of the most exciting young goalkeepers in European football and he’s shielded by a crop of defenders—Wendell, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Omer Toprak to name a few—who are growing as players week after week.

At the sharp end of the pitch they have some real quality too. Heung-min Son is an exceptional goal-scoring midfielder, Karim Bellarabi’s blistering surges on the right flank have lit up the Bundesliga and Hakan Calhanoglu, aside from being a wonderfully gifted footballer, is the most dangerous player with a dead ball in European football.

Even more encouraging is that all of the aforementioned stars are 25 years old or younger and that they’ve already adapted well to the bespoke, unfamiliar principles of Schmidt. With another year of experience under their belts, Leverkusen could be even more of a force to be reckoned with next season.

Others are starting to think so too it would seem: “Leverkusen and Roger Schmidt showed what great quality they have,” said Bayern director Matthias Sammer in the wake of their win German Cup tie, per Cristian Nyari of FCB Media. “We have a true competitor with them.”

While they may not be ready to go toe-to-toe with the Bayern juggernaut quite yet, recent indications suggest that Bayer are primed to assume the mantle as best of the rest in Germany. If they do, perhaps it will finally be the catalyst towards this iconic Bundesliga club finally abolishing their nearly-men stigma.

Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball

 

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