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Victor Boniface leading Leverkusen's early title challenge

September 5, 2023

Xabi Alonso's Bayer Leverkusen have enjoyed a 100% start to the Bundesliga season — thanks in no small part to Victor Boniface. With four goals in three games, the Nigerian is spearheading an early title challenge.

Victor Boniface celebrates scoring against Darmstadt
Victor Boniface scored twice against Darmstadt and already has four goals this seasonImage: Bernd Thissen/dpa/picture alliance

Victor Boniface's brace in Bayer Leverkusen's win against Darmstadt on Saturday was impressive, but they weren't his first competitive goals at the BayArena.

Five months ago, he found the same net when he fired Belgian side Union Saint-Gilloise into the lead in the Europa League quarterfinal first leg. Leverkusen ultimately progressed 5-2 on aggregate, but Boniface had left his mark on the Werkself.

"He's a proper tanker, the weights room must be his best friend," commented Leverkusen midfielder Robert Andrich at the time. "He repeatedly made good runs behind our lines, and his finish wasn't bad either. He's really horrible to play against. I don't know if he does that every week."

Not every week, but regularly enough, with his 22 goals and 12 assists in all competitions for Saint-Gilloise convincing Leverkusen to pay €16m ($17.3m) for the young Nigerian, a fee which could yet rise as high as €20.5m with bonus payments, despite an injury record which already lists two cruciate ligament tears in the same knee.

"It was a business decision as to whether or not we should take that risk," explained sporting director Simon Rolfes after offering Boniface a five-year contract when others, including Bundesliga rivals RB Leipzig had decided not to. "But, in our opinion, it was worth it."

Wilmots: 'Boniface has everything'

And he's been proven right so far as the 22-year-old has spearheaded Leverkusen's perfect start to the season, with four goals and two assists in the first three league games showcasing that he's an all-round powerhouse. Furthermore, he's struck up an immediate understanding with rising star Florian Wirtz, as well as fellow summer signings Granit Xhaka and Jonas Hofmann.

Victor Boniface battles for the ball with Gladbach goalkeeper Jonas Omlin
Victor Boniface also scored twice away at Borussia Mönchengladbach last weekImage: Federico Gambarini/dpa/picture alliance

"He has everything," former Belgian national team coach Marc Wilmots, who watched Boniface closely in Belgium's Jupiler Pro League last season, told Kicker magazine. "He's strong on the ball and fast, a real weapon. He fits into any system, either as part of a front two or as a lone striker."

So far in Germany, it's been the latter. But come October, when Czech striker Patrik Schick is expected to return after undergoing surgery for a long-term groin injury, head coach Xabi Alonso will have even more options.

"Of course, everyone's talking about his goals, but Victor is also important in our build-up play with his presence and ability to hold the ball up," said Rolfes after the win over newly promoted Darmstadt. "When the opposition press, it helps the central defenders to know they have someone who they can play to. That's just as important as his goals."

Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, happy now to only be facing Boniface in training, summed it up, saying: "He's a nightmare for any defense."

Boniface's versatility suits Bayer Leverkusen well this season, with the Werkself looking a much more rounded team under Alonso having reinvested the €55m received from Aston Villa for Moussa Diaby wisely in Boniface, Xhaka and Hofmann.

Xabi Alonso issues instructions from the touchline
Bayer Leverkusen are looking impressive under Xabi Alonso - but how far can they go?Image: Cathrin Müller/MIS/IMAGO

No more Bayer 'Neverkusen'?

The question now is whether Alonso, in his second season in charge, can build on Leverkusen's shrewd signings and perfect start and mount a serious challenge for the title — or indeed any trophy.

Despite exemption from the 50+1 rule and financial backing from pharmaceutical giants Bayer, Leverkusen have only ever won two major trophies in their entire history: the UEFA Cup in 1988 and the German Cup in 1993. Since then, a series of near misses have seen them acquire the disparaging nicknames of "Vizekusen" — a play on the German word for "vice" — or the anglicized "Neverkusen."

In 2002, they famously lost in the finals of both the German Cup and Champions League while throwing away the league title on the final day. In 2020, they were seconds away from going into the winter break top of the league before conceding a last-minute goal against Bayern Munich. And last season, they were ultimately knocked out of the Europa League in the semifinal by Roma.

When the Bundesliga returns from the international break, a trip to Munich will offer a clearer barometer of just how good this Leverkusen side is.

"We're not going to go to Munich and defend for 90 minutes," promised midfielder Xhaka after the win over Darmstadt. "We respect Bayern, but we're not scared. We want points, and we want to see where we really stand."

With Boniface leading the line, Leverkusen have nothing to fear.

Edited by James Thorogood