Off the back of their best season in slightly over a decade, Bayer Leverkusen will surely be raring to go for the 2013/2014 Bundesliga season. The North Rhine-Westfalen based club managed by Sami Hyypiä (in co-operation with Sascha Lewandowski last season – the duo are discussed further here) were consistently among the top few clubs last season, even looking as challengers to FC Bayern during the Hinrunde, becoming the only side to beat the eventual treble winners, with Sidney Sam forcing Jerome Boateng into an own goal late on to take a 2-1 victory and all three points back home.
Die Werkself also reached the Round of 32 in the Europa League, suffering a 3-1 defeat to eventual finalists Benfica after sweeping through the groups. With the Champions League group stages a certainly, Leverkusen will maintain hope of carrying a strong fight on both the national and European fronts, and boosted by a group of new signings this may be a stark possibility.
Unfortunately for Leverkusen, the loss of two key players – Dani Carvajal to Real Madrid and André Schürrle to Chelsea – alongside squad players Michael Rensing (Fortuna Düsseldorf), Hajime Hosogai (Hertha Berlin) and Michal Kadlec (Fenerbahce) – may prove costly in the long run, at the very least damaging the depth of the squad at Hyypiä’s disposal.
The New Boys
Almost certainly Leverkusen’s biggest move of the window so far has been their capture of Heung-Min Son from Hamburger SV. Son was one of the breakthrough players in the Bundesliga last season, finishing on a respectable 12 goals for a player usually occupying a wider berth, playing off Artjom Rudnevs. For die Löwen, the South Korean forward can expect to do much the same with striker, and last season’s top scorer, Stefan Kießling; it would seem that Son is, first and foremost, a like for like André Schürrle replacement, but such is his versatility, he’ll also be a valuable backup to Kießling.
Another signing for the attacking end of Leverkusen’s team is Robbie Kruse. The Australian, who impressed at relegated Fortuna Düsseldorf last season, will perhaps find it more difficult to get as long on the pitch as he did last season, what with competition for his best position from Sidney Sam and Jens Hegeler, but Kruse himself showed enough to justify the €1.5 Million fee for his switch across North Rhine-Westfalen, and with games coming thick and fast on the European stage, in the Bundesliga, and in the DFB Pokal too, Kruse should get enough of a chance to stake a claim for a secure place, and a slot in Australia’s 2014 World Cup team.
One of the more interesting moves of the window so far brought Inter Milan Giulio Donati to Leverkusen. A right back, Donati is a straight replacement for the Madrid-bound Carvajal, and so the transfer was no doubt forced, but in doing so die Werkself have seemingly picked up one of Europe’s best young full backs; Donati impressed highly at the U21 Euro 2013, at the very least until the final, and the void Carvajal has left shouldn’t be felt too much.
Andres Palop and Emir Spahic – a goalkeeper and a central defender respectively – have both made the switch to Leverkusen from Sevilla, but should be no more than backups in what is, other than Carvajal’s departure, a fairly settled defence. Both players are in the twilight of their careers, too, and so can perhaps bring the experience into the dressing room to allow younger members of the team to play to their full potential.
The Key Men
Following a torrid U21 Euro 2013, in which he made a few fatal blunders, Bernd Leno will be a man with something to prove to Germany national coach Joachim Löw in particular. Leno himself is a magnificent goalkeeper, turning in many excellent performances in a Bayer shirt over the past couple of years, one of them in a game mentioned earlier, the 2-1 triumph over Bayern last year; and, while a World Cup spot this time around is perhaps unlikely, Leno is one of a crop of young German goalkeepers who’ll battle it out over the next few years to be Manuel Neuer’s understudy.
Turkish international defender Ömer Toprak has been widely tipped to have an excellent season by followers of the Bundesliga, and if fit he’ll be a key component of a sturdy defence, last season’s second best in the league. Alongside ex Nürnberg man Philipp Wollscheid, a man tipped to go become a Germany international in the next few years, Toprak will be a feared foe of many Bundesliga strikers over the next season.
Stefan Kießling’s role as main goalscorer is self-explanatory; and with the recent form of the ex-German international – Löw seems unwilling to recall him, despite his excellent scoring record – Leverkusen should be able to rely on the man up front to weigh in with his weight in goals. Obviously, support from the likes of Kruse, Son, Sam and co. will help Kießling’s cause no end, but Kießling himself is a hard working forward and adds Leverkusen an extra dimension going forward. In midfield, Lars Bender can be expected to control games following an excellent few years at Leverkusen. The twin brother of Dortmund’s Sven, Lars scored a brilliant goal from right back at Euro 2012 against Denmark and has since kicked on in midfield, gaining attention from a host of top European clubs. At just 24, the role of vice captain – Leverkusen’s captain being fellow midfielder Simon Rolfes – makes him a key cog in the Leverkusen midfield machine and indeed the team as a whole.
A repeat of last season is possible, but it’d be tricky. The loss of Sascha Lewandowski as joint manager may be an important thing to consider, and indeed it’s hard to tell which contingent of he management duo was the brains behind the recent success. Alongside that, Leverkusen will have to bed in a number of new signings in key areas, which could make the early part of the season slightly trickier than it would otherwise have been. Either way, European football is both an expectation and likely, but with strengthening from the likes of Schalke 04, Borussia Mönchengladbach and even VfB Stuttgart, the Champions League spots are difficult to call.