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Heynckes turning talented Leverkusen into title contenders

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SOCCER-GERMANY/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.

Leverkusen lead and Schalke sparkle in Bundesliga

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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.

Early Christmas present for Van Gaal, Bayern

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SOCCER-CHAMPIONS/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.

Bayern are worse off under Van Gaal than Klinsmann — official

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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.

Delighted Bayern get away with daylight ‘Robery’

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Arjen Robben arrived in Munich and passed a medical exam on Friday, scored two goals after coming on in the second half with his new teammate Franck Ribery on Saturday, and then left his new home town on Monday to meet up with the Dutch international team in Enschede.

It was a remarkable weekend trip to the Bavarian capital. In just 27 minutes Robben and Ribery — Munich’s new dynamic duo quickly dubbed “Robery” by German headline writers — combined for two spectacular goals to lead Bayern to their first win of the season, 3-0 against defending champions VfL Wolfsburg.

Van Gaal era starts with a whimper

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Louis van Gaal came to Bayern Munich because the Bavarians were looking for a “soccer teacher“, someone who would rid the club of former coach Juergen Klinsmann’s experiments — the innovative training methods, the meditation sessions and the Buddha statues – and bring the club back to basics.

So far so good. By the time Van Gaal arrived in July, Bayern had already signed strikers Ivica Olic, Mario Gomez and defensive midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk.

Kaka deal highlights Serie A decline

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The departure of Kaka from AC Milan to Real Madrid marks the end of the Italian era in European football. Not only can Italian clubs not attract the best players in the world to play in Serie A but now, when they unearth a talent like Kaka, they can’t stop them from leaving.

Italians used to describe their Serie A as ‘il campionato piu bello del mondo’ , the most beautiful championship in the world. It was not just because Italians love nothing more than talking themselves up — Serie A was the first league in the world to sign up top foreign stars, bringing in international talent at a time when the English league, for example, stretched no further than Scotland in search of players.

German football end-of-season special

One of the best Bundesliga seasons I can remember came to a disappointing end in Saturday’s DFB-Pokal final. 

While the league gave us two great stories with the rise and fall of Hoffenheim and the ultimate triumph of Wolfsburg, the Cup final was a damp affair.

Werder win ‘scared rabbit’ final

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Unless you happen to be a Werder Bremen fan, you’d probably agree with the rest of Germany that Werder’s 1-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in Saturday’s Cup final made for a deflating end to the season.

Germans have a term for it: “Angsthasen Fussball” (scared rabbit football) — an appropriate description for a fear-filled struggle between two of Germany’s biggest underachievers this year, doing everything they could to avoid one last defeat before the holidays.

Ribery and Bayern have a big decision to make

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Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery is a joy to watch. His acceleration, ball control and creative play have quickly elevated him to the Bundesliga’s biggest asset.

But come next week the Frenchman could be gone as the pulling power quickly fizzles out of the German league.

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