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Can Bayer Leverkusen progress after exodus of key players?

First Omer Toprak left Leverkusen, then Hakan Calhanoglu, now Chicharito. With other key men likely to follow them out, is there any hope that a club that's become a fixture in the top four can stop the rot next term? “It was not a difficult decision." Those were the words of Javier Hernandez (aka Chicharito) as he pulled on a West Ham shirt for the first time after completing his move back to England on Monday. He seemed to be referring mainly to the decision to join the London club rather than the one to leave the Werkself, but the sentiment seems applicable to both cases. The Mexican striker endured a difficult end to an otherwise prolific Bundesliga career, as the service dried up in a team desperately struggling to keep their heads above water. Leverkusen suffered through a desperate second half of the season, winning just four league games after the winter break until a cathartic 6-2 defeat of Hertha Berlin on the last day of the season, after safety was assured, gave them a measure of relief. That win also meant they finished 12th, a position that flattered a side that looked woeful under Roger Schmidt and even worse during the short-lived reign of Tayfun Korkut. It was all a far cry from Chicharito's debut campaign for the club, when he scored 17 times in 28 appearances and was the league's Player of the Month three times, as Leverkusen picked up the 'best of the rest' trophy behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – about the best the other Bundesliga clubs can hope for these days. Where will the goals come from? But thoughts of challenging for even that dubious crown seem fanciful at this point. Chicharito may well have wanted out whatever happened but the departures of Calhanoglu, who provided a goal or assist every 110 minutes last term in an interrupted Bundesliga campaign, and Toprak – a defender good enough to step up a level to BVB - must have made him question the club's ambition. Of course, there's still plenty of time in the transfer window (though Leverkusen's first German Cup game is in a little over a fortnight) but Sven Bender and Dominik Kohr don't feel like upgrades. Bender may offer some defensive stability, which would be further enhanced if Jonathan Tah can regain fitness, but it's going forward that Leverkusen look set to struggle. No-one but Hernandez even reached double figures for goals in all competitions last term and removing Calhangolu from the equation as well means only Kevin Volland (9) and Joel Pohjanpalo (6) scored more than 4. It's no wonder new coach Heiko Herrlich, the club's eighth boss in nine years, has been preaching the virtues of teamwork over individuals. Teamwork the key for new boss "Hakan of course has huge quality, as do Kevin [Kampl, who has also asked to leave] and Chicharito," he told the Bundesliga website before the Chicharito deal went through. "But ultimately it’s important that the players that you have available identify 100 per cent with the club. Things will soon be clear - then we'll see more. "I think a club like Bayer Leverkusen will never find themselves depending on just one player. Chicharito has given great performances in his two years here, but so have many others. You can only achieve success as a team." Perhaps Herrlich will forge the collective identity that the side lacked last year, but even the hardest working sides need matchwinners. Leverkusen have become a fixture at the top end in recent years, never failing to finish outside the top 5 in the seven years before last. But with the emergence of Leipzig and Hoffenheim and even Hertha Berlin and Cologne starting to make small but significant strides, it's becoming more and more difficult to see a way back to the Champions League for a club who famously reached the final in 2002. Perhaps that's not the expectation anymore and perhaps they can hang on to a small but talented crop of youngsters – Tah, Julian Brandt and Kai Havertz chief among them – and make progress that way. But, as Dortmund found out last term, losing three key players in one stroke is a difficult trick to pull.

First Omer Toprak left Leverkusen, then Hakan Calhanoglu, now Chicharito. With other key men likely to follow them out, is there any hope that a club that’s become a fixture in the top four can stop the rot next term? “It was not a difficult decision.” Those were the words of Javier Hernandez (aka Chicharito) as he pulled on a ... Read More »

Bundesliga: Bayern win late, Schalke and Wolfsburg denied

After Friday night's draw in the capital, more draws and more drama followed on Saturday's Bundesliga matchday two action. Bayern's fortune continued and Kevin de Bruyne played, but he probably shouldn't have. Hoffenheim 1-2 Bayern Munich (Volland 1' - Müller 41', Lewandowski 90+1') Despite Hoffenheim setting a new league record they couldn't break their own curse against the record-champions as Bayern turned the game around to seal a dramatic away win that was full of incident. After just 9.3 seconds, Kevin Volland seized on a misplaced pass from David Alaba to score with Hoffenheim's first touch of the ball and send the home fans into raptures. Markus Gisdol's men had never beaten Bayern in Bundesliga history, but their early goal stunned the defending champions. Bayern just couldn't get anywhere near Hoffenheim's goal and after half an hour, the decision to start Mario Götze ahead of Robert Lewandowski looked an odd one. Oliver Baumann was called into action, making a fine reflex save to keep out a glancing header from Thomas Müller. After a drinks break and a substitution (Rafinha came on for Mehdi Benatia), Bayern found an equalizer just before the half-time whistle. Douglas Costa went on an all-too familiar jinking run down the left wing and Baumann could only palm the cross into Müller's path, who sent the ball in off his knee. It was, as expected, a different game in the second 45 minutes. Mario Götze's mazy run wasn't finished off by Costa, but Bayern were coming closer. Thiago came on for Arjen Robben, who had been relatively quiet, and a neat passing play ended with Arturo Vidal curling onto the top of the crossbar. In a moment of drama, Hoffenheim missed the chance to restore their lead. Jerome Boateng's raised arm in a wall deflected a free kick, but the incident was spotted by referee Tobias Stieler who sent off Boateng (second yellow) and awarded Hoffenheim a penalty. Eugen Polanski's spot kick hit the post and squirmed under Manuel Neuer before it was cleared. In shock at missing their chance, Hoffenheim shuffled back and as is so often the case, they paid the price. After Müller had a goal disallowed for the use of his hand, Costa started another brilliant move out wide. His low cross evaded Mario Götze's attempt at a back heel, but substitute Lewandowski was on hand to guide the ball home to give Bayern their second consecutive win. Schalke 1-1 Darmstadt (Draxler 48' - Rausch 9') After an impressive opening day win against Bremen, Schalke were denied by a resilient Darmstadt. Former Hannover wingback Konstantin Rausch curled in from the left side of the area after Schalke failed to deal with a long ball forward from Darmstadt. Searching an immediate equalizer, Julian Draxler curled just over the bar. Ralf Fährmann had to make a superb close-range stop to deny Mario Vrancic from doubling Darmstadt's lead. Andre Breitenreiter's men launched a siege on the visitors' goal but couldn't find a breakthrough before the half. It only took three minutes into the second-half though, and Schalke were level. Franco di Santo sent in a low cross for Draxler, who timed his darting run perfectly to guide the ball into the bottom corner. The home side pushed on to find a winner. Johannes Geis hit the bar with a free kick, and then Roman Neustädter nearly flicked the ball in at the far post but in the end Darmstadt were not to be denied a brave point that may make a difference come the end of the season. Cologne 1-1 Wolfsburg (Zoller 30' - Bendtner 84') With all the focus on one man before kick off, Cologne's home game against Wolfsburg was a rather forgettable affair for the opening half an hour. Wolfsburg's Kevin de Bruyne was jeered after a poor showing and things got worse for The Wolves when the home side took the lead. A goal kick from Timo Horn was flicked on by Anthony Modeste and Simon Zoller reacted quickly to flick it over the advancing Koen Casteels and then, despite the attention of Naldo, head in to the empty net. In the second-half, Zoller had the chance to square the ball for 2-0, but he chose instead to go for goal only to be denied by Casteels. The stand-in goalkeeper denied Modeste as Dieter Hecking's side continued to look sluggish. Aaron Hunt tried his hand at playmaking duties, but Bas Dost couldn't beat Timo Horn with a deflected effort. The home side was left heartbroken though, when Horn spilled Daniel Caligiuri's shot from out wide allowing substitute Nicklas Bendtner to tap in a late equalizer. It could and should have been even more of a painful afternoon for Cologne, but De Bruyne fluffed a glorious chance to win the game. Matthias Lehmann's mistake let in the Belgian but he tried to do too much with his one-on-one chance and then his rebound was blocked by a defiant Lehmann. The points were shared, but both Wolfsburg and De Bruyne looked as though their minds were elsewhere. Leverkusen clever, Frankfurt sneak a point Augsburg's tough start to the new season continues after they saw defeat slip away late on against Frankfurt. Caiuby's toe-poked finish into the roof of the net gave the visitors a deserved lead in the first half and it appeared as though it would be enough. Marwin Hitz made a fine, diving save to deny Marco Russ and Haris Seferovic showed great control with his chest, but his hurried finish could only hit the side netting. Youngster Luca Waldschmidt saved the day though, setting up stand-in captain Russ to slot home an equalizer five minutes from time inside the box. In the only game of the day that didn't end with a share of two goals, Leverkusen comfortably beat Hannover by a solitary goal. Aiming to break the league's record for free-kick goals, Hakan Calhanoglu's stunning set-piece from 20 yards out gave the visitors a first-half lead. A weak Admir Mehmedi effort prevented Roger Schmidt's men from doubling their half-time lead. A minute into the second half and Calhanoglu had hit the corner of the goal frame with another superb free-kick, but there were to be no more goals, despite Leverkusen's best efforts.

After Friday night’s draw in the capital, more draws and more drama followed on Saturday’s Bundesliga matchday two action. Bayern’s fortune continued and Kevin de Bruyne played, but he probably shouldn’t have. Hoffenheim 1-2 Bayern Munich (Volland 1′ – Müller 41′, Lewandowski 90+1′) Despite Hoffenheim setting a new league record they couldn’t break their own curse against the record-champions as ... Read More »

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