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Never Neverkusenland

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Following the resumption of the Bundesliga, Bayer Leverkusen find themselves fifth in the table with 56 points from 29 games. Die Werkself (the Company Eleven, in recognition of their roots as a works team for pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG) & their supporters could be forgiven a touch of the jitters at the thought of rising three places & overtaking Borussia Dortmund in 2nd. Which seems an incredibly odd assertion, granted! But if there is any trepidation emanating from those who would normally take their seats at the currently empty BayArena on a Saturday afternoon, it is not entirely without fairly recent precedent...


The Neverkusen phenomenon has its roots in the 1996-7 season, when finishing second to Bayern having missed out on usurping them by just two points. Starting a similar such run which would come to fruition in each of then- gaffer Christoph Daum's four campaigns in charge, after returning home from a spell in Turkey with Besiktas. However, perhaps its best known instances date from towards the end of his tenure? Which is to say the early 2000's, when the team built around Michael Ballack somehow contrived to fluff its lines on the biggest stages both domestically & in Europe just when it seemed everything was in alignment. 


Ironically it was Ballack who put the boot into their first title bid of the new millennium! Needing at least a draw in the final game of that 1999-2000 season away at Unterhaching, his own goal helped condemn the visitors to a surprise 2-0 defeat & handed the trophy to the men from Munich. The midfielder would go on to sign for Der FCB upon his 2002 exit, after a three-year stay having arrived from Kaiserslautern, before quite possibly giving Bayer fans with decent recent memories something of a scare by returning in 2010 to wind down his career. 


And then there's the hardly insignificant matter of the final two parts of the Treble Horror, as Bayer fans know it, just before he left that first time, taking team-mate Ze Roberto with him. The Bundesliga once again slipped from Leverkusen's grasp as Dortmund pounced following a run of three wins from the final three matches as Bayer lost two having seemingly done the hard work over the preceding weeks & months of that season. And as if that weren't enough the DFB-Pokal ( German Cup) final ended in a 4-2 loss to Schalke having been 1-0 up through Dimitar Berbatov. Ulf Kirsten's strike on 89 minutes turning out to be a mere consolation in response to a four goal swing for their opponents.


The third indignity then came in that year's Champions League final. Having gone through in second place from Group F behind Barcelona, a second group stage comprised of their fellow runners up & group winners found them placed in Group D- which they topped to get through to the knockout stages. Liverpool were dispatched largely by virtue of a 4-2 home win for their hosts, Manchester United added to their list of perhaps surprising scalps before they went on to face Real Madrid in the big showpiece at Hampden Park.


Their opponents would notch a second win over German opposition on Scottish soil having previously also beaten Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final on the same ground. Zinedine Zidane did his bit to earn the right to be spoken about in the same breath as the greats behind that earlier victory, with the goal which turned out to be the winner after Lucio had given Bayer a glimmer of hope with an equaliser to Raul's early goal. In an interesting bit of pub quiz- worthy trivia, Leverkusen remain the only team in Europe to have reached the final without having won their national league title. 


By which point Daum's successor Klaus Toppmöller was in the dugout, having taken charge on July 1 of the previous year as the first of the never never men departed under a cloud, having eventually admitted to using cocaine following several denials- going so far as to send hair samples to the relevant authorities.


When the tests came back showing evidence of drug use he initially tried to claim the samples were not his own but then backtracked & admitted his offences, costing him not only the Leverkusen job but the chance to coach the German national team after Euro 2000 having impressed the DFB (German FA)- caretaker Rudi Völler being given the honour on a permanent basis instead.


Having been dragged through such turmoil it might seem a foregone conclusion that Bayer would struggle in its wake. Though nobody could possibly have predicted they would spend most of 2002-03 fighting to avoid the trap door of relegation & finishing just one place & four points above the foot of the table, with 40 points from their 34 matches played saving them from going the way of Arminia Bielefeld, FC Nurnberg & Energie Cottbus. 


Toppmöller led the charge for all but the final two games of that season, to eventually be replaced by a fellow Klaus- Augenthaler, who'd been sacked by Nurnberg & would himself remain at the BayArena until September of 2005 when the sack came following one win from the first four games of 2005-06. 


Before his exit, though, Bayer did at least get a measure of revenge over Real Madrid following a considerable upturn in fortunes the season after their skin of their teeth survival. With a 3-0 win in their first Champions League group stage match of 2004-05, the seat back at European football's top table was earnt with a third place Bundesliga finish in 2003-04, behind only second placed Bayern & champions Werder Bremen- just two agonising points separating second & third!


Following his departure Völler would take caretaker charge of five games having been brought in as sporting director at the start of the season, before his former national team assistant Michael Skibbe took the reins.


He started fairly well in stopping the rot & leading the team to a sixth place finish & UEFA Cup spot, the next year seeing him better that by a place before 2007-08 brought the curtain down with Leverkusen ending that season in seventh, outside of the European places by just a point in yet another case of fine margins proving their undoing! 


His successor Bruno Labbadia managed ninth place & a cup final defeat to Werder in his sole season before moving to Hamburg. Jupp Heynckes then produced a fourth place finish in his own first campaign, having presided over a record 24- game winning run which saw Bayer breathing down the necks of Bayern Munich before two wins from their last nine matches ended things with a whimper. 


A second place finish in 2010-11 did little to shake the Neverkusen tag in a final flourish before Heynckes departed to take over at Bayern for a third time, having ensured recent history repeated itself. Whether it will again could be one of the best stories outside the current Bundesliga title race!


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