Reuters Soccer Blog
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Big deal says Bayer Leverkusen coach Jupp Heynckes after their 3-2 loss to Nuremberg on Sunday. He is quick to reject any of the tags that Leverkusen have had to deal with for much of the past 15 years, like “Neverkusen” and “Vizekusen”.
“That is irritating, but I cannot defend myself against such voices,” Heynckes said of the nicknames that are now more frequently used in the media following the first defeat.
“What exactly happened here?”, he told reporters on Monday. “Nothing. We were top of the table until the 24th matchday and then we just lost one match because we were not well positioned in our defence.”
Well the fight for fourth spot in the Premier League looks like being one of the most intriguing battles in Europe as we near the latter stages of the season. Tottenham and Aston Villa won but Manchester City drew 0-0 with Liverpool in a drab game to leave it all as close as an Olympic downhill.
The Bundesliga and La Liga get more exciting thanks to Bayer Leverkusen and Cristiano Ronaldo while Inter’s lead being cut to five points has made Serie A less clear cut.
Germans used to laugh at soccer players who wore long johns in the winter, belittling anyone who opted not to play in shorts as a light-weight. Germans even have a derogatory name for the thermal underwear: Liebestoeter (passion killers).
That was before Arjen Robben scored two goals and led Bayern Munich to three straight wins in his woolly grey long johns. They may make him look like a 19th century grampa getting ready to get into a cold bed. But they’re “hot pants” as far as Bayern are concerned.
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.
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.
Bayern Munich coach Louis van Gaal got an early Christmas present. He gets to keep his job until at least after the festive season is over following Bayern’s 4-1 crushing of Juventus in Italy to advance to the Champions League knockout stage.
Two weeks ago the Dutchman, who took over in July, looked to be on his way out with Bayern needing two wins in the remaining Champions League matches to advance, while languishing in seventh place in the Bundesliga.
Going into the last round of Champions League group games, Italy was the only nation with a chance of having all four entrants in the last 16.
The Italians were getting quite excited about this, especially as they have the Germans on their tail in the fight to keep the four berths in future seasons, but Tuesday’s woeful performance by Juventus in a 4-1 home defeat by Bayern Munich ended Serie A hopes of a clean sweep.
Bayern Munich directors must be feeling very uncomfortable at the moment. Their team are sixth in the Bundesliga and almost out of the Champions League.
So far their chosen successor to Juergen Klinsmann, who was sacked a few weeks before the end of last season for failing to secure any silverware, has had a worse run than the former striker.
The Champions League is back and our reporters are currently wringing out their wet things (Mitch Phillips at Chelsea)/basking in the evening sunshine by the River Manzanares (Iain Rogers at Atletico) and undergoing all climactic variations in between.
Tonight’s first tranche of eight matches includes a repeat of the very first Champions League final, with AC Milan visiting Marseille, plus the European debut of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka for Real Madrid, with the Spaniards visiting Zurich.