Bayern faces a challenge to their reign from Leverkusen

Photo of Leverkusen win over Byern.

In Germany, Bayer Leverkusen has long carried the moniker “Neverkusen,” epitomizing a team constantly on the brink of success yet always falling short. While Bayern Munich reigned supreme with consecutive league titles, Leverkusen remained on the fringes, unable to break through.

However, in the 2023-24 season, the tide turned. Leverkusen’s commanding 3-0 victory over Bayern at the BayArena wasn’t a fluke; it was the culmination of years of dedication under the guidance of head coach Xabi Alonso. This win signaled Leverkusen’s rise as a formidable contender in European football, sending shockwaves through the soccer world.

Bayern Munich’s longstanding dominance has encountered a formidable challenge.

Following their triumph on Saturday, Leverkusen has surged ahead by five points in the Bundesliga standings. With 13 games left in the season, a window of opportunity has opened. However, this shift isn’t solely due to Bayern’s stumble.

Even prior to Saturday’s match, the reigning champions were on track to reach 85 points, marking one of their strongest performances. Leverkusen’s rise has been instrumental in shaking up the competition.

Guided by Alonso and supported by underrated talents, Leverkusen has embraced a style of play characterized by dynamic versatility. Their impressive unbeaten streak of 31 games across three competitions is a testament to their adaptability. They exhibit the fluid passing and movement akin to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City while also demonstrating defensive resilience and counterattacking efficiency reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid in 2012.

They defied expectations over the weekend. Florian Wirtz, celebrated as a revitalized talent, surged through midfield in the 18th minute, nearly engineering a breakthrough for Leverkusen. Bayern’s Dayot Upamecano cleared a dangerous rebound, but Leverkusen swiftly capitalized on the subsequent throw-in, catching the champions off guard. Sacha Boey, drafted into Bayern’s lineup due to a fullback injury crisis, was caught off balance at the far post.

Josip Stanišić, once deemed surplus by Bayern and loaned to Leverkusen over the summer, exploited the gap behind Boey to put the hosts ahead against his parent club.

Despite enjoying less possession, Leverkusen generated more scoring opportunities throughout the 90 minutes. They recorded eight shots on goal compared to Bayern’s solitary attempt and had an Expected Goals (xG) of 1.5, while Bayern’s stood at 0.6. Leverkusen never seemed vulnerable to losing a game they historically struggled to win. They doubled their lead five minutes into the second half, dispelling any doubts.

They secured an unforgettable win in injury time, followed by jubilant celebrations.

They carry no burden from past disappointments; they are merely an exceptional soccer team. Florian Wirtz and others weren’t even alive when the “Neverkusen” moniker emerged in the early 2000s. Leverkusen finished as Bundesliga runners-up four times in six seasons from 1996 to 2002. Despite reaching both the Champions League and DFB Pokal finals in 2000 with their strongest squad, they suffered defeats in both competitions.

This earned them the nickname “Vizekusen” — translated as “runner-up-kusen.” Since then, they haven’t lifted any trophies or secured a Bundesliga title.

Their perennial rival, Bayern Munich, had clinched 11 consecutive titles. While Bayern occasionally stumbled in some seasons, no team capitalized on their missteps. In others, Bayern surged ahead of the competition. The 2023-24 season appeared poised to continue this trend.

Despite facing injuries and persistent doubts, Bayern amassed 50 points from their initial 20 games, ranking sixth in league history. Their underlying statistics suggested dominance, even surpassing their performance in the 2017-18 season when they topped the league by 21 points. Nonetheless, every subsequent season ended predictably.

Then, Alonso and Leverkusen emerged as an even greater force. With shrewd signings in the summer, such as Granit Xhaka from Arsenal and Victor Boniface from Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium, they transformed into a versatile powerhouse. They possess the ability to stifle opponents and launch swift attacks, or control possession and dismantle opponents with intricate build-up play that impresses purists and garners attention, even in friendly matches.

Time and again, they’ve exhibited resilience, mounting comebacks to clinch victories and secure crucial points. In September, they salvaged two points against Bayern with a 94th-minute equalizer. After the winter break, they notched consecutive wins with goals scored in stoppage time.

Doubts arose among some observers about the sustainability of their late-game heroics, with concerns raised about potential regression based on their underlying statistics. Their narrow lead appeared precarious, particularly given the lengthy spring season, during which Bayern typically asserts its dominance.

Nonetheless, Saturday’s outcome erased any lingering doubts. Leverkusen now holds a firm grip on the top spot in the Bundesliga standings. The reigning champions have been toppled, leaving them just three months to reclaim their position at the summit.

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