Hyypia set to ditch 'Neverkusen' tag

Posted by Andy Brassell

It's an old nickname, but it has stuck. Throwing away the chance of a first-ever Bundesliga title at the last in both 2000 and 2002 would be a sorry enough tale on its own, but Bayer Leverkusen really took the biscuit in that latter season. After allowing Borussia Dortmund to leapfrog them in the league campaign's final weeks, they followed it with a DFB Pokal final loss to Schalke and Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid at Hampden Park. In the image of their befuddled coach Klaus Toppmoller, the epithet 'Neverkusen' was born.

Rather than rejecting it, it has been embraced as part of the club's history with good humour. The first English-language podcast by the club's fans even used it for their title. The current incumbent of Toppmoller's old place on the bench, Sami Hyypia, is nevertheless aiming to change the cliche. In a Champions League group beginning with a trip to Manchester United and also containing Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad, he has a great opportunity to make an impression on the wider consciousness of European football.

The former Liverpool defender's story at the start of his managerial career is one of right place, right time. Following his retirement as a player for Leverkusen, he had been on the coaching staff for a matter of months when (now Werder Bremen coach) Robin Dutt was fired, catapulting Hyypia and under-19 coach Sascha Lewandowski into temporary -- then permanent -- charge.

The pair made the most of the chance, enjoying an excellent first season at the helm last term, guiding Die Werkself to a third-placed finish and automatic Champions League qualification. Moreover, they were the only team to beat Bayern Munich in their record-busting campaign, recording a 2-1 win at the Allianz Arena in October last year.

This was significant, certainly in psychological terms. Their continual folding in Munich down the years had become the stuff of legend, an accompaniment to the 'Neverkusen' nickname. Yet that win, which was their first away to Bayern in 23 years, showed that there was substance and nerve to a stylish team full of young talent.

They have quickly settled into their stride of last season in the new campaign, winning four of their first five Bundesliga games to sit in the third place (behind the inevitable Dortmund and Bayern) that many believe they will still occupy come the close of the season.

It suggests that maybe, just maybe, Leverkusen's new edge is here to stay. There have been changes, with Hyypia now in sole charge after Lewandowski went back to his old job. The Dortmund-born coach had been the 'name above the door' when the partnership first took charge at the BayArena, as the one with the coaching diplomas and the post-match spokesman. As well as doing his job, Hyypia closely observed how Lewandowski operated.

It was a wise move. Lewandowski took charge of most of the tactical preparation last season, so the rigours of the Champions League will present a stern examination of Hyypia's all-round capabilities. The playing squad has become younger still, and has little Champions League previous. Even one of the old heads brought in, 33-year-old Bosnian centre-back Emir Spahic, will be making his debut in the competition at Old Trafford.

The departures of Daniel Schwaab, Michal Kadlec and Manuel Friedrich are losses in terms of experience, though Kadlec's nightmare performance in the first leg of Fenerbahce's Champions League play-off against Arsenal suggested that Leverkusen had got rid of him at just the right time.

Hyypia is following a plan already set in motion. The 4-3-3 system of last season could potentially be even more potent in this campaign than it was in the last, despite the exit of Andre Schurrle to Chelsea. Schurrle was replaced (for half the money) by Son Heung-Min, the wide attacker recruited from Hamburg. At 21, Son has the world at his feet, with great pace, technique and finishing ability, plus a media-friendly personality to boot. He has slotted seamlessly onto the left side of an attack completed by last season's Bundesliga top scorer Stefan Kiessling (25 goals) and the in-form Sidney Sam, cutting in from the right onto his powerful left foot.

The new arrivals -- which also include Bayern midfielder Emre Can, though Pep Guardiola's side retain a buyback clause -- the retention of Lars Bender and Gonzalo Castro, and the swift, counterattacking game so beloved of many of the continent's good and great, are all things that speak volumes of a building ambition in this industrial town, whose football culture has for so long been derided as 'plastic' by some of their domestic rivals.

In fact, this current Leverkusen side are putting a few misconceptions to bed. The BayArena is a tough place to visit. Only Bayern and Dortmund won there last season, and Mainz and Wolfsburg were the only other teams to take home a point. Their current attacking verve is, of course, a great throwback to the club's best traditions. As well as playing a full part in a thrilling final at Hampden in 2002, Toppmoller's side were Bundesliga high scorers that season, rattling in 77 in 34 games -- 15 more than champions Dortmund managed.

So naturally, Europe is an important step for Leverkusen. They were extremely unfortunate to exit the Europa League to eventual finalists Benfica last season, having dominated both legs, though clearly the Champions League campaign will be something else entirely.

Hyypia is unlikely to let his side be cowed by their opening match visit to face United -- after all, he was part of a Liverpool side that won 4-1 there on his last visit as a player, in March 2009. The even better news for neutrals is that in a group that contains plenty of audacious young talent in Shakhtar and La Real's ranks too, this ambitious Leverkusen will get room to play their natural game. Let the fun begin.

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