Hyypia′s Bayer Leverkusen - flying high, under the radar | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 15.08.2013
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Hyypia's Bayer Leverkusen - flying high, under the radar

Sami Hyypia was the well-tempered lion at Liverpool's heart for a decade. Sometimes underrated, some observers would notice only the most transparent of his abilities. Oddly, this could make him Leverkusen's dream coach.

Pop quiz: How far adrift of Borussia Dortmund did third-placed Bayer Leverkusen finish last season?

If you're busy trying to work out whether the points-gap reached double figures, put down the abacus. Leverkusen finished the season one solitary point, ein Punkt, behind Dortmund.

Furthermore, the side was the only Bundesliga team all season to beat Bayern Munich, 2-1 at the Allianz Arena late in October. Excluding the pre-season Supercup, as most right-minded thinkers do, Bayern haven't lost a competitive game to German opposition since. (Let's not spoil this party by mentioning that only the most freakish late own goal from Jerome Boateng secured Leverkusen's win in what otherwise would have been an unbeaten Bayern season.)

Even winning 3-1, against European qualifiers Freiburg for that matter, on opening weekend this season wasn't enough for Leverkusen to grab any headlines. Little wonder, really. Hertha smashed six past Frankfurt, Bayern started as they left off, Schalke and Hamburg proved football is possible without defending, and Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang taught everybody how to spell his name with just eight letters - hat trick.

Sam, Son, and Stefan

Leverkusen's comparatively comfortable win over Freiburg was just what the doctor ordered for the side funded by pharmaceutical giant Bayer. Several new recipes were tested out, mostly with the desired effects.

Scorer Heung-Min Son and creator Sidney Sam celebrate Leverkusen's second goal in Saturday's 3-1 win over Freiburg. (Photo via Marius Becker/dpa)

Son and Sam must shine in Schürrle's absence

In the absence of departed star forward Andre Schürrle, this season's new attacking trio bagged a goal each. Stefan Kiessling scored in his seventh consecutive league game, a Leverkusen record. Sidney Sam put the ball on a plate for Heung-Min Son to open his Leverkusen account, before adding a third himself.

Behind them, captain and midfield all-rounder Lars Bender was as imperious as usual, while an almost entirely re-jigged defense held firm. Veteran Emir Spahic looked tidy in central defense and 23-year-old full back Giulio Donati suggested that there might be life after Dani Carvajal, Leverkusen's other major summer loss.

In Bernd Leno, the club has a talented young keeper and in Hyypia, the team has something approaching "solo" leadership this season. The ex-player is still studying for his full coaching license, and has an even bigger cabal of coaches backing him up this season, but the double-leadership of last season with Sascha Lewandowski is a thing of the past.

Strictly speaking, Hyypia's record as an official club head coach is perfect: two games, two wins.

The gentle giant

Leverkusen fans never saw Hyypia play in his imposing prime; his best days were behind him when he joined on a free transfer in 2009, then aged 35.

During a decade on Merseyside with Liverpool, Hyypia played 464 games and won numerous trophies, including six Finnish player of the year awards. Another Liverpool favorite, former German international Dietmar Hamann, recently told the club's website that Hyypia "is Liverpool's best signing of the last 15 years."

Liverpoools finnish defender Sami Hyypiä in Action on 18.09.2005. Foto: Neal Simpson. +++(c) dpa - Report+++ pixel

Hyypia was a natural leader at Liverpool

Hyypia's leadership qualities were immediately apparent to the coach who signed him from Willem II in the Netherlands, Gerard Houllier. He gave Hyypia the captain's armband for one game late in his debut season. Less than three years into his stay in north-west England, Hyypia was given the armband permanently.

Perhaps most impressively, however, the Finn made no fuss whatsoever when Liverpool lad Steven Gerrard was implanted as captain in his stead a little over one season later. Gerrard, Hyypia, and new vice-captain Jamie Carragher, another local boy, played together in harmony for five more years.

Standing 1.95 meters tall (around six feet four inches), Hyypia's heading and his aerial dominance were noticed by all. Many did not notice, however, that the Finn was strong with both feet, had an eye for short and long passes alike, and never missed a positional beat at the back.

Nor did he ever miss a game, for that matter. In Liverpool's 2001/02 season, their most successful since the long-dead glory days, Hyypia played all 63 of The Reds' matches en route to winning both domestic cups and the UEFA Cup, as it was known then. What's more, he did not pick up a single yellow or red card in that entire season, despite his role at the heart of probably the best defense in Europe.

'Take it easy, Sami, slow it down'

Don't mistake Hyypia's clean disciplinary record as a player - or his uncanny ability to accept even the most baffling refereeing blunders without dissent - with ambivalence. It's more accurate to say these were by-products of a quiet nature and the soccer IQ that allowed Hyypia to consistently outsmart attackers who could have beaten him in a simple footrace with their laces tied together.

Hyypia never shied away from hard work. One shot of him on the touchline against Freiburg on Saturday simply showed him gesturing with a clenched fist at his players, swiping the air three times quickly, imploring them to push on.

"Sometimes my coach would come to me in training and say: 'Take it easy, Sami, slow it down.'" Hyypia recalled in an interview with the local WAZ paper. "But I couldn't. One hundred percent, or nothing at all. That's my way."

Stefan Kiessling and teammates celebrate his opening goal for Leverkusen against Freiburg, 10.08.2013. (Photo: Marius Becker/dpa)

Kiessling should be good for 15 goals or more

If Leverkusen can generate the same sort of effort, a top-four finish in the Bundesliga should be guaranteed. The team already has an early lead over Schalke, the obvious candidate to compete to be the Bundesliga's "best of the rest."

Even if they manage this, however, Germany is unlikely to take a great deal of notice of the little club with corporate backing. There's too much chaos, mismanagement and underachievement to go around among more storied clubs that love to have a dig at Leverkusen by putting the noun "tradition" before their more accurate title, "club." Hyypia's unlikely to be upset if Leverkusen succeed without recognition. He's never sought the limelight after the final whistle blew.

"As a player, I sometimes had to," the Finn recalled. "But that's not me. I like my own space."

At Leverkusen, and at his rural home near Cologne, Hyypia might have found just that.