Eric Bruehl makes his Bundesliga fanatic debut, previewing his favorite team’s season.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with a preview for Bayer Leverkusen. All summer long the team seems to have been caught up in a media storm the likes of which I’ve never seen surround B04. That type of attention is usually reserved for FC Hollywood in Munich, but Leverkusen had enough drama around the team this summer to make even the most casual fan stand up and take notice (I am not that casual fan). Most importantly, ex-Freiburg trainer, Robin Dutt, picked up the mantle dropped by Don Jupp, and promised that he didn’t come to Leverkusen to see them finish fourth or fifth every year. Rather, after a fairly strong second-place finish last year, Dutt suggested that the team’s gaze should only be in one direction – upwards. Fans applauded the pronouncement (and the bravado), but a possible distraction loomed on the horizon.
Without belaboring the point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much Arturo Vidal’s transfer dominated headlines. Let me just say one thing about this: many will disagree with the strategy to sell your most valuable player from the previous season before trying to get past the first round of the Champion’s League and finish the season in a CL spot. Others, myself included, feel that it was the best we could do in that situation. I for one applaud Rudi Voeller’s stubbornness in not even considering a trade to Bayern and only listening to foreign offers. At some point you just have to say, “Enough…we’re not giving you our talent any longer, and we’re sure as hell not going to let Vidal walk away to you for nothing the following year. We will, however, gladly accept a check for 10.5 million euros from a kindly, Old Lady.” Well played, Herr Voeller.
As if this wasn’t enough drama, another valuable player, GK Rene Adler, hurt his knee in a practice match over the summer and finds himself off the pitch until November. And as everyone knows, going into a Bundesliga season with a goalkeeping crisis on your hands is like going into a gunfight with a knife. Unfortunately, the situation doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence at the moment. After the Dresden debacle, fans have been clamoring for young up-and-comer Fabian Giefer to replace newly-arrived American David Yelldell in goal for the start of the season. Dutt himself has suggested that there is still a competition between the two, and it’s certainly the case that Yelldell’s leash is much shorter now. Rumors about bringing in another GK intensified after the Pokacle (Pokal/debacle…get it?!) loss to Dynamo Dresden, and a bad start to the regular season by either Yelldell or Giefer will only likely bring further whispers.
During all of the friendlies and practice matches Leverkusen’s defense acquitted itself quite well (only one loss to Brugge), and the new lineup that saw Omer Toprak and Stefan Reinartz flanked on the left by Michal Kadlec and on the right by Hanno Balitsch looked like the answer to all of those defensive questions that were being asked. This held up for 67 minutes in the first official match of the season, until Dresden realized that our defense, particularly the center of it, was susceptible to high balls into the area. No wonder Dutt had several players practicing headers out of the area at his Monday “punishment” training. The situation isn’t quite as bad as it seems, as there is some depth to this group. Daniel Schwaab will hopefully come back from injury in strong fashion, and returnee Bastian Ozcipka (St. Pauli) might be tried in the rotation sooner rather than later. Gonzalo Castro has yet to impress, but as always, fingers crossed. The defense isn’t Leverkusen’s strength, but the hope is that it will be better than last season.
One of the reasons the sale of Vidal was met with celebration by many Leverkusen fans (besides the money) was because it opened up some interesting possibilities that might very well approximate the effect of Vidal from last year. In the role of the two 6s, Dutt played Rolfes and Bender (the more talented one!) to great effect in the Dresden game. Even to a biased fan (me), you had to be how astounded by how fluid the midfield looked for the first 35 minutes. Augusto tracked back to allow Rolfes to move forward, Schuerrle and Sam, the fastest wing combination in the league, penetrated the middle as well as the flanks, and Bender was Bayer’s best player, winning challenges in the midfield and distributing the ball like a seasoned professional. This should be the starting midfield for the first Bundesliga game against Mainz, with Ballack (and who has had a worse summer than this man?) and Barnetta again available off the bench. Whether Dutt will make any substitutions in the midfield during that game remains to be seen. As for the rumors of Barnetta possibly leaving for England, it would seem a bad idea to sell the Swiss international after the previous game.
Relying on a 4-2-3-1, Dutt has given Eren Derdiyok the opportunity to put his stamp on the position of lone striker. Sadly, Stefan Kiessling has not been the same player he was two years ago, and the long recovery from last season’s injury doesn’t seem to be over. So Derdiyok will get the chance, and if the test matches were any indication he might be in for a career year. His ability to come back to the ball, hold it up even momentarily, and then distribute to the burners on the wings (Schuerrle and Sam) will be essential if Leverkusen wants to improve on it’s strong goal total (64) from last season.
Youngsters like Danny Da Costa, Karim Bellarabi, and Nicoli Joergensen are also on Leverkusen’s small roster but they are likely a ways from sniffing any regular playing time. It’s too early to tell what the future holds for them, but there is undeniable talent in all three. The uncertainty around the youngsters is a good metaphor for the uncertainty around the team itself. There is talent at every position, but whether the mental fortitude that’s required to take that next step is there is still up for debate. Dutt is hopefully doing everything in his power to strengthen self-belief before the beginning of the Bundesliga season, because without it the team will drive fans crazy with its mental lapses. If Leverkusen is able to overcome the loss of their GK for the first two months, sort out its defense, forget the horrific loss to Dresden, and avoid any more Ballack drama, its chances for a top three finish (and a CL spot) are very much in the cards. Then again, that’s a lot of ifs…
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