It's easy to forget that biggest story of last season first half was a juggernaut in the form of Bayer Leverkusen. The chemical firm’s company team topped the league for 15 straight weeks, and went unbeaten for the first 25 games. It didn’t last, however - Bayer imploded, losing five of the last ten matches and finishing out of the Champions League spots.
Bayern Munich romped to the title, the German Cup and a Champions League runners-up place, but Leverkusen’s fall from grace was nearly as enthralling a tale. History is always most favorable to the victor so perhaps it was no surprise that Leverkusen's implosion was eclipsed by Bayern's success.
Leverkusen were probably happy this was the case. They seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight even as they were setting the pace, so when their inadequacies were finally exposed, it must have come as bittersweet relief for the focus to shift to someone else, even if it meant that they would remain saddled with the "Neverkusen" tag. That one is destined to remain until the club captures a Bundesliga title.
While their slide to fourth must have hurt, the redirecting of the media glare to other clubs more used to the attention appears to have done Leverkusen good. With the cameras trained elsewhere, they can work on digesting last season’s bitter pill quietly.
Leverkusen hiding in the pack, waiting to pounce
It appears from their form and their demeanor so far this season that last year's swoon is unlikely to be repeated. Leverkusen have approached this Bundesliga campaign in the same way a sprint finisher may approach a long, winding stage of the Tour de France. Instead of racing ahead with the hope that they have legs enough to hold off their challengers over the final miles, Leverkusen are keeping pace with the leaders under the cover of the following peloton. Everyone knows they're there but the focus is out in front - and that's just how Leverkusen like it.
Ahead of Saturday's game away to fellow chasing-packers Hoffenheim, Leverkusen's task still looks daunting. They are nine points behind table-topping Borussia Dortmund, dropping from second to third after drawing with Bayern last weekend. Still they look now like a team in better shape to challenge for the title than the one which was top of the league going into match day 14 last season.
It may sound like a strange conclusion to draw considering Leverkusen were unbeaten at the same stage last season, and were three points clear at the top. But their current condition is less about statistics and points. It has much more to do with countenance, commitment and the fine art of keeping their mouths shut.
Topsy-turvy league allows Bayer to remain consistent
After the inflated expectations of last season, Leverkusen are happy punching at their exact weight. With everyone else either underperforming (Bayern, Bremen, Schalke) or exceeding (Mainz, Freiburg, Hanover - even Dortmund), Leverkusen are playing at a consistent level, safe in the personally acquired knowledge that everything can come crashing down for those high-flying clubs that suddenly find themselves out of fuel in the final weeks of a title race.
Perhaps it's the old chestnut of German soccer fans that Leverkusen will be perennial nearly-men for as long as the ball is round, but scant notice has been taken of their stealthy pursuit of the early pacesetters. Whatever is allowing Leverkusen to slip under the radar, the team is happy to let them believe what they want and not draw any undue attention to their progress.
In this case, maybe the injury and absence of Michael Ballack has helped Leverkusen's cause in more ways than his presence on the pitch ever could. With the Germany captain in their ranks, Leverkusen become a media magnet again. With Ballack sidelined with a long-term ankle injury, the team can get on with things with the minimum of fuss.
Much to shout about but Heynckes enforces code of silence
Besides, why lament the loss of Ballack when the team has Renato Augusto, a classic No. 10? The 22-year-old Brazilian has been pulling the strings in the manner of a player with ten years more experience but with twice the energy. Then there's Arturo Vidal, the Chilean midfielder who is enjoying a breakout season in which he breaks into the rank of the league’s elite defensive midfielders – and who is the team's top scorer at the moment with five goals, to boot. Just behind him in the scoring stakes (on four) is Sidney Sam, a 22-year-old wing forward whose speed is making a mug of full-backs across Germany.
Should Leverkusen choose to blow their own trumpet they could also draw attention to the return to fitness and form of goalkeeper Rene Adler as a reason for their solidity. After conceding six against Borussia Moenchengladbach in their second match, Adler and his defensive team have been efficiently parsimonious, conceding on average a goal a game. However, no-one at Leverkusen is shouting about any of that.
Leverkusen cannot be blamed for adopting a form of omerta, the mafia's code of silence, after the painful experience of last season. Coach Jupp Heynckes knows that for his players to concentrate on the business of winning soccer matches expectations must be tempered and praise must be restricted to private moments.
After all, a sprint finisher can't make his surprise break for the tape if he's busy ringing his own bell, can he?
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann