The Bundesliga apparently has a clear number two, but there are plenty of reasons to believe Leverkusen can push Wolfsburg off their perch in the new season. Club legend Ulf Kirsten believes in the exciting squad.
For the first time since 2002, victory is closer than ever for Leverkusen. Bayern Munich's dominance hinders every side in the Bundesliga, but Leverkusen look like a team no longer held back by their own failings. "We have to seize the moment when things aren't going well at Bayern," said Leverkusen legend Ulf Kirsten to DW. With things falling into place for Roger Schmidt and his charges and transition seemingly not far away in Munich, that time looks near.
"Leverkusen's aim is once again qualifying for the Champions League. It is and must be possible with this squad," said Kirsten, who believes Leverkusen have long been considered a regular of Europe's elite. While that may be the case, domestically the side has struggled to generate the same fear as Wolfsburg. Odd considering the clubs share a lot: areas of the matchday experience remain a little forced, stadium capacities remain a modest 30,000 and both play an aggressive attacking football. The big difference is that Wolfsburg won the German cup last season and the Bundesliga in 2009. Leverkusen's last success came as far back as 1993 in the form of the German Cup. Winning shapes the rate of progression.
There was a moment last season when it looked like it might all unravel for Leverkusen and the two steps forward might be sacrificed for three back. However, the recovery from both their head coach and the team itself revealed everything about the direction this club is headed. "Roger Schmidt has put his stamp on the team and his style is clear to see. Aggressive pressing and quick transitional play was something he developed in Salzburg, and that element was clear to see at Leverkusen last season," said Ulf Kirsten.
Defense wins titles
One problem that Leverkusen might face is in defense. Omer Toprak's long injury spell could see him on the sidelines for as long as the entire first half of the season. Jonathan Tah is expected to step up after an 8-million-euro ($8.8 million) transfer, but that expectation will rise even more with Toprak's absence. Granted man-mountain Kyriakos Papadopoulos is still fit and perhaps new-signing Andre Ramalho can use his understanding with Schmidt to the club's immediate advantage, but Leverkusen will have to do more than just "get by" in Toprak's absence to reach their potential.
Off the field, Leverkusen faces an international identity crisis. To the majority of the 160,000-strong population the club retains pride of place and new legends have been found. Kirsten, the club's all-time top goalscorer, sees Kießling as the latest torchbearer for the club: "Stefan has been at Leverkusen since 2006 and has grown into someone who represents the club. Over 120 goals in that time says it all."
Charles Aranguiz is a key signing for Leverkusen, and is expected to be announced before the league start
Kiessling is no longer a young buck though, and this is the season the rest of the youthful squad must step up. The return of World Cup winner Christoph Kramer is a huge addition to the midfield, particularly with the departure of long-stay Gonzalo Castro. Admir Mehmedi has come in to replace the departing Josip Drmic, which is perhaps the only risk of the summer, and everyone in and around the club is making a lot of noise about 19-year-old Tah. And if Chile's Charles Aranguiz really is on the verge of signing, then the midfield is starting to look one of most balanced in the league.
More than just one team in red
One player who impressed last campaign and caught the eye of many around Europe, including Kirsten, was Julian Brandt. "For a player who could have played U19s last season, it was a fantastic season," said Kirsten. He's right. If Brandt can deliver anywhere near an improvement on 25 league appearances and four goals, the 19-year-old will be worth an awful lot come next summer.
Germany's youngsters tend to catch all the eyes in the transfer market at the moment, and as great as club progression is, Kirsten suggested youth football does need to be protected: "The development in Leverkusen has been great for years, but I do regret that the U23s were abolished." The Bundesliga has seen a lot of players leave for the Premier League this summer, but with a sustainable youth system still in place, there is no need to panic. As Kirsten rightly points out: "Manchester City is an incredibly expensive team but who from that team would be an immediate starter at Bayern Munich?"
In terms of the football though, Leverkusen has been going from strength to strength. The squad has quietly built itself into a formidable unit and with age very much on their side, there is no reason they cannot challenge Wolfsburg for second spot. "The team depth is outstanding, particularly in attack. Add to that an exceptional goalkeeper and the new signing of Jonathan Tah…" said Kirsten and the answer is a modern, attacking style of football that is now well balanced. With an average age of 23, this group is confident, talented and ready to prove they aren't just some other team in the Bundesliga wearing red.