Hertha Berlin manager Pal Dardai recently gave his thoughts ahead of the new Bundesliga season and dubbed that Bayern Munich winning the title for a fifth consecutive year would be “boring.” Instead, the Hungarian tipped a somewhat bold and surprise name for champions: Bayer Leverkusen.
Ask the majority, and most go “boring” and predict status quo for the upcoming campaign: Bayern champions yet again and Borussia Dortmund challenging, yet kept at arms length as runners-up and Leverkusen completing the podium (in an, albeit, rather distant third).
German football in recent times has become synonymou, seeing Bayern with Dortmund and then the rest; the Munich giants running amok, Thomas Tuchel’s men giving chase and the other 16 sides in another league within the league. Dortmund are closing the gap, but selling star players year after year, especially Robert Lewandowski, Mario Götze (although back with BVB) and, this summer, Mats Hummels, to their Bavarian rivals, means the record champions are constantly strengthening themselves and weakening their biggest rivals at the same time.
However, whilst Dardai’s prediction is rather against the norm, you can understand why he’s thrown Leverkusen into the mix. Roger Schmidt has a vastly exciting young squad, dotted with experience here and there, at his disposal, which has been added with more quality options over the summer.
In goal, Bernd Leno, linked with the controversial but ambitious newcomers RB Leipzig earlier in the transfer window, stays, whilst they welcomed Ramazan Özcan, who joined from Ingolstadt, as his back-up. No problems in that department.
The defence shipped 40 goals last season, although in the form of Jonathan Tah, arguably have the brightest young defender in the division. Tin Jedvaj and Wendell can be rash, but will continue to improve and Ömer Toprak remains, after heavy links with Dortmund (he does though look set to join the black and yellows in a year’s time). Kyriakos Papadopoulos, if he can stay fit, is also a fantastic option. Not to mention, Leverkusen have recently completed the signing of Austria international, Aleksandar Dragović.
Across the middle of the park, Charles Aránguiz will be like a new signing after his debut season in Germany was curtailed with an Achilles injury. The steely Julian Baumgartlinger arrives from Mainz, whilst captain Lars Bender will be high on confidence following Germany’s run at the Olympics and Kevin Kampl provides the creativity.
It’s Leverkusen’s array of attacking options though which appears most impressive. The goals of Javier Hernandez. The width and pace of Karim Bellarabi. Julian Brandt, the youngest player since Gerd Müller to score in six successive Bundesliga games, Hakan Calhanoglu, club legend Stefan Kießling; the list is endless. With Kevin Volland now joining the party, the ball should be finding the opponent’s net on many occasions over the next nine months.
Enough for a title challenge? They finished a mammoth 28 points behind Bayern, 18 adrift of Dortmund at the end of last season, with matches they shouldn’t be losing (Darmstadt and Werder Bremen at home) & defeats to major rivals highlighting inconsistencies.
A prime example which Leverkusen could follow are Atletico Madrid. Barcelona and Real Madrid, were the “Big Two” of La Liga. In 2013, Atletico finished 24 points behind Barca. Twelve months later, they were champions. The “Big Two” had become the “Big Three.” Two Champions League finals have come in the last three seasons, with Diego Simeone’s men now one of European football’s elite.
Champions is probably pushing it too far (sorry Mr Dardai) and a bit too early for this squad (after all, Leverkusen are still awaiting for that elusive first Bundesliga crown). This is football however. A stern first test awaits on Saturday for B04 at Champions League rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach. Pass that and maybe Dardai knows something the rest of us don’t. Bayern and Dortmund won’t underestimate Leverkusen though.
Bundesliga winners? Unlikely. A “Big Two” becoming a “Big Three” over the next few seasons? A big possibility.