The cruel monikers of ‘Neverkusen’ and ‘Vizekussen’ have plagued Bayer Leverkusen for many years, but this season they finally look like they might have a chance of throwing off those cruel nicknames. They maintained their unbeaten streak this season with a thrilling Pokal quarter-final win over VfB Stuttgart and once again showed that they are a side that cannot be ruled out until the very end as their ability for late goals came to the fore once again.
Xabi Alonso can be credited with so much during his time as coach of the Werkself. His brand of high pressing, intense passing, attacking football is easy on the eye, while his back three has developed into the league’s most miserly defence. The transfer acquisitions fit perfectly into his system and the squad players can shift seamlessly into the team without any loss of effectiveness.
However, another stand-out feature of Leverkusen’s play this season has been their ‘never say die’ attitude whereby they keep up their intensity until the very last minute of the game if they are chasing a vital goal. They never consider themselves beaten or condemned to a draw until the referee blows his final whistle. Dare we say it- this is the characteristic of champions.
We saw this in effect early on in the season when they came away from the Allianz Arena with a 2-2 draw. Leon Goretzka thought he had hit an 86th minute winner for the Rekordmeister, but Leverkusen kept fighting and were rewarded with a 94th minute penalty dispatched by Exequiel Palacios.
The start of the New Year saw them travel to Augsburg and despite dominating the play, it looked as if they were going to be frustrated by the Fuggerstädter with a goalless stalemate. That was until midfielder Palacios once again came to the rescue by firing in a loose ball four minutes into time added on. The late drama was repeated again the following week away at RB Leipzig, where Bayer were twice behind at the Red Bull Arena before equalising twice. A share of the spoils seemed fair, but Alonso’s side were not satisfied and once again kept pushing till the very end and were rewarded when Piero Hincapie headed in a Alejandro Grimaldo cross in the 91st minute.
A potential two points at the start of the year had been converted into six points by virtue of Leverkusen’s ‘never say die’ attitude and willingness to believe in their methods until the match is actually over.
Tuesday’s DFB Pokal quarter-final clash with VfB Stuttgart at the Bay Arena once again saw this quality in effect as the hosts emerged victorious against a Swabian side that were top of their game and playing some incredible football. Twice Leverkusen were behind, but twice they got themselves level. The prospect of extra-time was fast approaching and with Bayern Munich to play at the weekend, this was far from the ideal scenario. No need to worry though as defensive colossus Jonathan Tah was on hand to head home powerfully in the 90th minute after being picked out by a Florian Wirtz ball.
Once would be impressive, twice a coincidence, but the fact that Bayer Leverkusen have shown this match-winning quality on so many occasions makes it hard to put down to chance. They know their attacking quality and know that they can make the breakthrough at any point from the first minute of the game till the very last moment of stoppage time. The team has belief and they have the mental fortitude to keep going in pursuit of their reward.
This quality is one often shown by champions (Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson were past masters). Mental strength and belief in the tactical plan for 95+ minutes gets results, Borussia Dortmund fell agonisingly short of the Meisterschale last season. Could Bayer Leverkusen actually go one better than the Schwarzgelben this time around?
If they do, their attitude that keeps fighting until the final seconds could prove decisive.