Leverkusen lead and Schalke sparkle in Bundesliga
If anyone had said at the start of the season that a pensioner fresh out of retirement would steer perennial underachievers Bayer Leverkusen to the top of the Bundesliga at the halfway mark, they would have been called mad.
If they had also reckoned that Schalke 04 would be hot on their heels, they’d be thought of as even crazier.
Yet this is the state of play in Germany going into the three-week winter break at the end of the year.
Jupp Heynckes, who had retired before doing his former club Bayern Munich a favour by taking over from sacked coach Juergen Klinsmann in the final five matches last season to help grab a Champions League spot, decided to give it another go when he was asked to coach exciting Leverkusen.
The team, spearheaded by a young and attack-minded core of players including Stefan Kiessling, Patrick Helmes, Tranquillo Barnetta, Toni Kroos and Arturo Vidal, were already explosive at times last year. What they lacked was consistency.
With the addition of experienced Heynckes and veteran central defender Sami Hyypia, Leverkusen have blossomed. Even the injury to Helmes in the summer that left the striker out for several months did not affect them with Swiss international Eren Derdiyok stepping in to gracefully fill the void in attack.
They are unbeaten in the league and have the best offensive and defensive records.
Schalke, the sleeping giants of German soccer who were in complete disarray only last season, are just a point behind in second place.
The chaos of last season and the sacking of coach Fred Rutten after all expectations of a title were wiped out by December, are long gone. The arrival of coach Felix Magath, fresh from winning the title with VfL Wolfsburg, ushered in a sense of discipline and responsibility.
There were no major signings this season with the club struggling with debt. But Magath quickly plucked youngsters from the reserves or the bench including Christoph Moritz, Levan Kenia, Lewis Holtby, Jan Moravek and Greece international Vassilis Pliatsikas.
Peruvian Jefferson Farfan, rejected as a major flop last season, is driving the Schalke engine forward as striker Kevin Kuranyi is scoring at will and staking a claim again for a Germany spot. Even the volatile Rafinha is playing along, gracing the midfield with his creative play.
Gone are the days when central defender Heiko Westermann was the team’s top scorer. He has fully focused with Marcelo Bordon on his defensive duties allowing only 13 goals in 17 matches, the same as Leverkusen.
Bayern Munich managed to finish the year third, courtesy of a four-match winning streak after a rocky start to the season which followed the arrival of the Bundesliga’s most expensive transfer Mario Gomez, Ivica Olic, Anatoly Tymoshchuk, Edson Braafheid, Danijel Pranjic and Dutchman Arjen Robben.
Bayern coach Louis van Gaal, under pressure this season to deliver, is optimistic but it does make you wonder what Magath or Heynckes could achieve if they had a roster like Bayern’s.
PHOTO: Bayer Leverkusen’s Stefan Kiessling (L) and Toni Kroos celebrate a goal against Borussia Moenchengladbach during the German Bundesliga soccer match in Leverkusen December 19, 2009. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender