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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Why Leverkusen vs Bayern is so important – and why this Bundesliga title race is different

Since Werder Bremen pulled off the double twenty years ago, Bayern Munich have dominated the German top flight in unprecedented fashion.

Fifteen out of the following nineteen seasons have gone the way of the insatiable Bavarians, who last finished a campaign empty-handed in 2012. Only Stuttgart (2007), Wolfsburg (2009) and Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund (2011, 2012) have been able to stem the red tide.

Bayer Leverkusen, the current league leaders, came close twice (2000, 2002) but couldn’t stay the course. Can Xabi Alonso’s side learn any lessons from the handful of teams that managed to beat the serial champions to the punch in this century?

Stuttgart’s head of first-team football Christian Gentner is well-placed to offer advice. The former midfielder is the sole non-Munich-based player to win two titles with two different teams, Stuttgart and Wolfsburg, since Bayern’s hegemony began in the new millennium.

“Those two titles were quite different but they did share some similarities,” the 38-year-old tells The Athletic. “First of all, we never set out to win the Bundesliga with either team. I remember that Stuttgart and Wolfsburg weren’t even aiming for the top three at the beginning of those seasons. It all came out of nowhere.”

Gentner holds the Bundesliga with Stuttgart (Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images)

Neither side looked particularly well-placed to contest the Meisterschaft at the half-way mark either. Stuttgart were fourth at Christmas 2006, Wolfsburg in ninth at the same stage two years later. But they both went on superb runs in the second half of the season to finish as sensational winners. “We were riding the wave, we were in the zone,” Gentner recalls. “Things just sort of clicked, on auto-pilot. With every win, our confidence grew. It got to the point where we went into games thinking that nothing won’t go wrong.” 

Having two experienced managers — Armin Veh (Stuttgart) and Felix Magath (Wolfsburg) — in charge helped keep the pressure off the respective teams, Gentner adds. “Everyone pretends they’re not affected by nerves and that’s true up to a point,” he says. “As the underdog, you don’t really feel it until late in the season. But then this voice tells you, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, better not mess this up’. That’s when you need someone in charge who keeps very calm.”

It helped that Bayern were having two rather tumultuous seasons, which happened quite regularly after World Cups and European Championships in those years. Magath was fired as Bayern’s coach in February 2007 and Jurgen Klinsmann was dismissed in April 2009. Causation and correlation aren’t easy to disentangle in either case but Bayern’s troubles certainly opened up the field. Neither Stuttgart (70 points) nor Wolfsburg (69 points) were particularly impressive winners points-wise, but it was enough to emerge in top spot from the chaos.

History repeated itself in 2011. Another poor post-World Cup campaign saw Louis van Gaal sacked in Munich, as Bayern struggled to even make the Champions League places. That time, a young, totally unfancied Dortmund team took full advantage. Klopp underplayed his side’s chances until the very end — “We’re only looking at one game at a time,” he repeated ad nauseam — but their momentum, fuelled by the most high-energy pressing the league had ever seen at that point, was unmatched. They won in it in good time and style, with 75 points, seven clear of Leverkusen.

Still, it felt like a happy accident. Everyone believed that Bayern, with Jupp Heynckes back in charge, would strike back to win the league, including Klopp. “They will be champions,” he said before the start of the season. Dortmund weren’t perceived as Bayern’s equals but the size presented by their challenge became soon apparent as they pulled away from the Bavarians in the second half of the campaign with a new league record — 81 points — and then destroyed them 5-2 in the cup final, too. Heynckes nearly left the club after losing the Champions League final on home soil against Chelsea one week later but he and Bayern kept their nerve to win the treble in the following campaign.

Klopp led Dortmund to two Bundesliga titles (Patrik Stollarz/AFP/GettyImages)

No one has been able to snatch the Meisterschale off Bayern’s hands since. Can Leverkusen do it? They certainly have the confidence following their unbeaten run in all competitions this season, and in serial winner Alonso, they have a manager who’s seen and done it all before, at least as a player. What makes this title race different to the ones above, however, is that Bayern aren’t having a poor season at all. On the contrary. Fifty points from 20 games would have been more than enough to lead the table — if Leverkusen hadn’t been nigh on perfect with 52.

To put that into context, two Bundesliga teams have never had as many points combined at this stage of the season.

There’s one more important thing the successful challengers to the Bavarian empire have in common, however.

They all beat Bayern in the head-to-head games in the second half of those seasons. As Gentner explains, the effect of those results went beyond the three points won. “Everyone always thinks that Bayern will find a way to win it somehow,” he says. “You hear it so much that you start believing it yourself. But when you beat them, you’re no longer in awe of them, you lose that dread.”

Stuttgart’s 2-0 win over the record title holders five games before the end in 2007 gave the Swabians the final push and the same was true of his Wolfsburg humiliating Bayern 5-1 in spring of 2009. Dortmund, too, twice beat them when it mattered most on course for their back-to-back titles.

Leverkusen are two points clear and might not have to beat Bayern to stay on top until the end of May. But recent history suggests it will be a lot easier if they do. Saturday will be their chance to to put a huge dent into Bayern’s 21st century dominance.

(Top photo: Stefan Matzke – sampics/Corbis via Getty Images)

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