DUESSELDORF, Germany: Xabi Alonso has coached Bayer Leverkusen to their best chance in years of finally winning the Bundesliga. The ultimate test comes on Saturday when Leverkusen host 11-time defending champion Bayern Munich.
Leverkusen have not lost any of their 30 games in all competitions this season — the only unbeaten team in any of Europe’s top five leagues — and lead Bayern by two points in the standings.
Alonso and his players refuse to even talk about the title race — it’s still early, they’re taking things game by game. Bayern’s long reign in German soccer has seen plenty of would-be challengers fall short, not least Borussia Dortmund throwing away their chance on the last day of last season.
And Leverkusen are Germany’s great “nearly” team. Five times a Bundesliga runner-up and never a champion, and Champions League runner-up to Real Madrid in 2002. Shaking off the “Neverkusen” nickname will take something special.
Alonso has transformed Leverkusen since taking over what were then a relegation-threatened team in October 2022. His achievements have seen him linked with his old club Liverpool as a potential successor to Jürgen Klopp when the German leaves at the end of the season after nine years in charge. Klopp remains the last non-Bayern coach to win the Bundesliga, with Borussia Dortmund in 2012.
“What Jurgen has done at Liverpool, I have great respect, great admiration for him . . . but my focus is here at Bayer Leverkusen,” Alonso said last month after Klopp made his plans public. He’s spoken before about how his playing career under some of the best coaches of recent years — Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti — gave him a wealth of examples to draw on when coaching his own games.
Alonso’s team play a calm, possession-based style which can quickly turn lethal. Full-backs Alejandro Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong bring skill and pace to both flanks, and with seven goals and 10 assists in 20 Bundesliga games, Grimaldo is arguably the most influential left back in European soccer this season.
The one big question mark is over the striker position. Victor Boniface has been out for the last month after he was injured while training for the Africa Cup of Nations. In Leverkusen’s five games since in the league and cup, neither backup striker Patrik Schick nor new loan signing Borja Iglesias have scored.
As for Bayern, Harry Kane is chasing records in his first season in Germany with 24 goals in 20 league games, but injuries are putting pressure on a thin squad. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was out of training this week while left back Alphonso Davies strained a knee ligament last week and forward Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman are both out.
On the positive side, defender Kim Min-jae is back from the Asian Cup after South Korea’s semifinal loss to Jordan. Bayern coach Thomas Tuchel is hopeful that midfielder Joshua Kimmich and defender Dayot Upamecano can recover in time to play against Leverkusen.
Beat Bayern and Leverkusen fans could even start to dream that a league and cup double is possible.
Leverkusen won a thrilling game against Stuttgart 3-2 in the German Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday to reach the last four of a competition the club last won 31 years ago. It was the third time in five games that Leverkusen won by scoring in the 90th minute or beyond. Each time, Alonso celebrated wildly on the touchline.
Could this be the season the “Neverkusen” nickname is gone for good? Don’t count Alonso’s team out until the final whistle.