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Heynckes turning talented Leverkusen into title contenders
The qualities of the young Leverkusen team were already evident last season. Under Bruno Labbadia, they were exciting to watch for the first half of the campaign but crumbled after the winter break to end up in ninth.
New boss Jupp Heynckes seems to be succeeding where Labbadia failed.
Undefeated and boasting the league’s best attack and defence, they have every right to dream of the Bundesliga title that has eluded them for so long.
Heynckes’ experience and his winning pedigree, including the Champions League with Real Madrid, has helped instil the mental steel needed to turn a losing position around.
His insistence on tall strikers has paid off with interest. After taking over he quickly benched in-form Greece international Fanis Gekas, a former Bundesliga top scorer, and put his faith in the attacking partnership of Stefan Kiessling and Swiss Eren Derdiyok.
Both tall and strong, they are a world apart from Gekas and already have a combined goal tally of 21.
Leverkusen have also shrugged off the absence of striker Patrick Helmes, injured since the start of the season, and captain Simon Rolfes, sidelined by yet another knee injury.
Heynckes was the first coach to give Toni Kroos, arguably the most gifted German player of his generation, enough time on the pitch to shine.
The 20-year-old playmaker, on loan from Bayern Munich where he was warming the bench, has been eye-popping this season, scoring eight goals and setting up seven, and is on a fast track for a spot in Germany’s World Cup squad.
Heynckes brought in defender Sami Hyypia from Liverpool to cement his backline and allow his team’s fast-paced and creative play to flow. The experienced Finn has locked down the Leverkusen defence with raw power and determination and has netted two goals and set up another two.
With the expected return to fitness of Renato August and Helmes, and the addition of Rolfes toward the end of the season in time for what looks like the title crunch match against Bayern in April, Leverkusen may finally shake off their painful “Neverkusen” tag.
PHOTO: Bayer Leverkusen coach Jupp Heynckes reacts during the Bundesliga match at home to Freiburg, Jan. 31. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender.