Ali takes a look at Bayer Leverkusen and explains why he thinks they, rather than Borussia Dortmund, will be challenging Bayern Munich this season.
I had the pleasure of visiting Leverkusen three times last year and managed to see three of their worst games: a 1-0 home defeat to Darmstadt, a 0-0 Europa League draw with Villareal which eliminated them from that competition, and a 3-1 home defeat to Werder Bremen in the quarter finals of the Pokal. Not their finest moments by any stretch of the imagination... So where on earth have I got the ridiculous notion that they will be this season's dark horses? Well, it comes from all the games I didn't get to see in person, particularly towards the end of the season.
Charles Aranguiz. One name that was on the lips of every Leverkusen fan last summer and will be again this. His first season in Germany was interrupted by a terrible injury sustained just as the season was about to get underway, ruling him out until March. Without him they did just fine, with the occasional wobble, but the bigger problem was that they weren't very interesting to watch on occasions, other than Roger Schmidt's famous meltdown when he refused to be sent off. When Aranguiz came back the team exploded into life, also helped by the stellar rise of winger Julian Brandt. The young star will be key again this season, especially considering his confidence will have been boosted by his part in Germany's silver medal at the Rio Olympics. Aranguiz and Brandt changed that team from solid and unexciting to dangerous and thrilling. But wait, because there's more!
Chicarito settled really quickly into life in Germany, shrugging off the disappointment of Manchester United to lead the line effectively for the Werkself and will be dangerous again this season. Add in to that heady mix Karim Bellarabi and Hakan Calhanoglu, both of whom were present at the Euros even if they didn't make much of an impact, and you have a scarily good range of attacking players. Oh, and don't forget Stefan Kießling, the former goal king of the Bundesliga and an experienced head (in the mental sense and with the ball) who will be hoping to help his side even in the latter stages of his career. Just in case that wasn't enough, Leverkusen added in Kevin Volland from Hoffenheim, one of the bright young German talents who lost his way a little bit in the first half of last year but carried his side away from relegation trouble almost on his own after the winter break. Leverkusen will be a force to be reckoned with going forward and defences will be rightly terrified of the pace, movement and dribbling ability of the players they will be up against.
In front of the back four, Bayer again look very strong. New signing Julian Baumgartlinger will bring his tough tackling and simple passing to his new side, whilst Kevin Kampl continues to grow into the player Borussia Dortmund never gave him the chance to be. Levin Öztunali arrives from Werder Bremen to offer something different, whilst Lars Bender will once again use his experience at every level to keep this group of inexperienced players calm and focused. He will be absolutely crucial if Bayer are to be successful this season, as there are plenty of egos to keep in check and lots of young players pushing for a place in the first team. Balancing them all will be Schmidt's job, but keeping them happy and onside will be the responsibility of Bender, as well as fellow experienced pros Kießling and possibly Chicarito. Looking through the squad there is a glaring lack of experience, especially at Champions League level, which could prove costly.
Defensively, questions remain. Centre back remains an issue, particularly if the first choice pair of Omer Toprak and Jonathan Tah get injured or suspended, as is likely over the course of a season. Danny da Costa has been brought in from Ingolstadt to strengthen at right back, a position which Roberto Hilbert and Tin Jedvaj have somehow been able to bungle for the past couple of seasons. Wendell is growing into a solid left back and if he continues to work on his discipline and defensive positioning he could develop into an exceptional talent. Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Andre Ramalho hardly fill fans with confidence as the back up centre backs, however, which could see young Lukas Boeder be given a chance to impress. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno is still prone to mistakes, but continues to impress with his shot-stopping ability and the potential is there for him to be one of the best goalkeepers in the country.
Leverkusen are my dark horses because, centre back aside, they have real talent in every department and strength in depth. Their attack is frankly terrifying and if they don't come close to scoring the same number of goals as Bayern and Dortmund then something has gone very wrong. They have a relatively settled side, with a few new faces to add competition and an extra boost of ability on the bench, whilst they continue to develop new, young talent with the aim of introducing them to the first team. Leverkusen will be exciting to watch and I think they will thrive, not only in the league but also in the Champions League. It wouldn't be a surprise to see them climb above Dortmund after all the restructuring going on at the Revier club and a Champions League quarter final is not beyond the talents of these players if the draw is kind.
Key Player: Chicarito
If he continues to build on his form from last season then Leverkusen will be unstoppable. The Mexican has really blossomed under Schmidt and he will have even more talent supplying him with chances in the coming season. Aranguiz will also be crucial, as he showed towards the end of last season. Bender will need to be a strong leader in central midfield, a role Baumgartlinger will be more than willing to share with him.
Surprise Player: Danny da Costa
Bayer Leverkusen are unlikely to spring too many surprises this year, but I think we could really see something special from the whole squad. They are a young, talented group who will know each other well by this point and will be expecting great things of each other. If I were a Leverkusen fan I would be ridiculously excited about the new season. One player who could surprise is maybe the low key arrival of the summer, da Costa. Highly rated by Ingolstadt fans, he could be just the addition Leverkusen need to strengthen at right back.
Ali Predicts: 2nd
Falk Predicts: 3rd
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