Bayer Leverkusen were the stand-out side in the Bundesliga Hinrunde going through the first sixteen games unbeaten and topping the table ahead of Bayern Munich going into the winter break. Xabi Alonso tended to keep faith with a settled first XI to great effect, but with the start of the African Cup of Nations the Werkself will be without four key players as the season restarts. The Leverkusen coach will now be looking for some of the clubs second string to step up to the plate to fill in for the African contingent.
The African Cup of Nations may be the toughest opponent Leverkusen have faced thus far this season with top-scorer Victor Boniface (Nigeria), Odilon Kossounou (Ivory Coast), Edmond Tapsoba (Burkina Faso) and Amine Adli (Morocco) all called up by their respective nations.
The Leverkusen defence has been the tightest in the Bundesliga with just ten goals conceded so far so losing two of their defensive pillars is far from ideal. Victor Boniface has taken the Bundesliga by storm following his arrival from Union St. Gilloise scoring ten goals and providing eight assists. His absence as the focal point of the attacking line will also need to be compensated for. So just who needs to step up as the club look to continue their Hinrunde form into the New Year in order to maintain their title challenge?
The return to full fitness and form of Czech striker Patrik Schick has come at the perfect time for Leverkusen as they look to replace Victor Boniface in the forward line. An adductor injury kept the 27-year-old out of action for almost the entire of last season and most of the start of this current one. He is now back and ready to resume his career just when the club needs him most.
Before his injury nightmare Schick took the league by storm in the 2021-22 season scoring 24 league goals in 27 appearances. He has been eased back slowly this season with his first goal coming against BK Häken in the Europa League. He also scored in Leverkusen’s Pokal win over Paderborn before adding another against Molde in Europe.
Matchday 16 saw him given a surprise start against Bochum as Xabi Alonso looked to test out some fringe players and the Czech striker certainly repaid the faith. His first half hat trick put the result beyond doubt and sent out the message that he could more than adequately fill the main striking role in the absence of Victor Boniface.
The Ecuadorian began the season suspended as a result of the red card he received against Borussia Mönchengladbach on the final day of last season (his third of the season). The 21-year-old made 27 starts last season, but with Xabi Alonso picking a settled side so far, he has been limited to just three starts this season.
He will however be one of those called upon to slot into the defence alongside Jonathan Tah and he has the advantage of being able to play either centrally in a back three, or as a left back should Alonso wish to occasionally switch to a flat back four.
Xabi Alonso successfully experimented with defensive midfielder Robert Andrich as a converted centre back last season and dropping the 27-year-old back into the three-man defensive line looks to be something he will repeat in the Rückrunde.
His opportunities in his natural role have been limited this season with Granit Xhaka and Exequiel Palacios the preferred pairing in the centre of midfield, so using him as a centre back would solve two problems at the same time- Leverkusen get a more than decent stand-in and Andrich gets the regular game time he craves.
The 21-year-old Czech striker is yet to start a game in the Bundesliga this season with all of his 13 appearances thus far coming from the bench. Whether compatriot Patrik Schick is ready to completely take on the full burden of leading the Leverkusen attack remains to be seen after so long on the sidelines, but Hlozek will be a candidate to play up front if needed.
He scored five last season in 16 starts (29 appearances), but has just one in the league so far. He can play as the central striker, but also wide on the left giving trainer Alonso options with his front three.
The loan move for the Bayern fullback hasn’t quite been the success he has perhaps hoped for with game time limited, but this could be his time to shine in Leverkusen’s hour of need. He has made just six appearances this season (two starts), but that could all be set to change.
Predominantly a right back, the Croat has the versatility to play in any of the defensive positions. He has found it impossible to get into the team due to the fantastic form shown by Odilon Kossounou, but his absence should now give Stanisic his opportunity. Luckily Bayern Munich do not have a clause to cut short his loan as they too are looking for defensive cover.