As the Bundesliga shut down for its’ annual winter break, supporters of Bayer Leverkusen could be forgiven for thinking Christmas had already been and gone last May. For that is when the club appeared to receive its most treasured gift in the shape of their veteran Coach, Jupp Heynckes. In his short time in charge, the former German international has completely changed the fortunes of the struggling club, catapulting them from mid-table underachievers last season to league leaders at the half way point this season. It is a meteoric rise that has caught everybody by surprise in Germany, not just because of Leverkusen’s remarkable form – but because this time last year everybody thought Heynckes was finished with football.
Heynckes initially announced his retirement from football management in 2007 upon leaving Borussia Monchengladbach following a dismal run that left the club second bottom in the Bundesliga standings. However the 64-year-old made a surprise return to the game in April when he answered an S.O.S call from Bayern Munich to take control of their final five league games after the Champions had sacked boss Jurgen Klinsmann. It proved a smart decision for Bayern as Heynckes oversaw four wins and a draw to guide the Bavarians to second spot and Champions League football, something that seemed a long way off before his arrival. Despite ruling out a permanent role at Bayern, it seemed his brief run had reignited his passion for the game – because two weeks after the season finished, he agreed a deal to become Leverkusen’s new permanent Coach.
Since Heynckes’ appointment, Leverkusen have been in inspirational form and have not looked back since hitting the top of the league table back in October. Despite the competitive nature of the Bundesliga, Bayer have remained undefeated in their 17 league games so far and currently possess both the meanest strikeforce and tightest defence in the League. Even without last season’s top scorer Patrick Helmes, who has missed all but two games due to injury, Leverkusen have banged in 35 goals, 12 of which have come from the reinvigorated Steffan Kiessling. Working with Heynckes – a prolific striker in his day – has clearly benefited Kiessling and his impressive start to the campaign has led to international recognition. It seems all but certain that he will now board the plane to South Africa, despite his minimal number of caps, solely on his domestic form.
While Bayer’s potent attack may be understandable given Heynckes days as a forward, the defensive stability he has brought to the club has been a stroke of genius. Leverkusen struggled badly at the back last term, but have managed to keep conceding to a minimum with just 13 goals shipped so far. The main factor behind the success has been the canny acquisition of 36-year-old Finnish centre-back Sami Hyypia. The ex-Liverpool man has added much needed quality to the back four and has developed an intimidating partnership with Manuel Freidrich at the heart of the defence. At times his lack of speed has seemed to hinder him, but his ability to read the game has made Hyypia an early contender for signing of the season – an unexpected bonus for his attack minded Coach.
Despite all the positives for Leverkusen, Heynckes will know they still have a long way to go if they want to win the title. The crown of autumn champions is no real significant achievement and, as Hoffenheim proved last season, can often make the second half of the season tougher now that teams know your strengths. They also don’t command much breathing space at the top with just five points separating first and fifth, meaning it won’t take too many slip ups to plunge down the table – much like they did last season. However with the experienced Heynckes at the helm, Leverkusen may finally get the chance to rid themselves of the cruel ‘Never-kusen’ nickname, attributed to them by rival fans for their constant failures, and claim their first ever Bundesliga championship.
Elsewhere, struggling Nurnberg will recommence in mid-January with a new Coach following the clubs’ decision to sack Michael Oening. Last season’s promotion winning Coach was dismissed as a result of the club sitting second bottom with just 12 points from their 17 league games – the clubs worst ever performance in an opening half of a Bundesliga season. Former Hannover Coach Dieter Hecking was quickly drafted in as Oening’s successor by club President Franz Schafer, just 24 hours after wielding the axe. Schafer admitted it was a tough decision, but made it clear survival depended on it. Schafer said: “We are very sorry to have to take this step. It hasn’t been done to replace a trainer, but rather to stay in the Bundesliga.”
Another struggling side is Hertha BSC, and, as expected, reinforcements are quickly being acquired for their upcoming relegation battle. Sitting rock bottom with a measly six points, Hertha begun their recruitment drive before the transfer window even opened by securing three new loan signings. Out of favour Leverkusen striker Theofanis Gekas is the most significant to come in, with Schalke’s Georgian international midfielder Levan Kobiashvilli and Czech full-back Roman Hubnik (FC Moscow) quickly following. It is thought that Coach Freidhelm Funkel will be very active in the market this January, as the club attempt to pull off what would be the mother of all great escapes. They will start 2010 ten points from safety, and will probably need the equivalent of title form if they are to survive.