Leverkusen, North Rhine-Westphalia. A city that is primarily known for its impact on the German chemical industry as the home of the Bayer company. A small city on the eastern bank of the River Rhine in Germany’s most populous state, Leverkusen is an oft-forgotten city on the German map. And yet, in the footballing world, Leverkusen have earned their special place in history. Bayer Leverkusen are a club that has failed to win their top division league title, despite their presence for an unbroken stay of 39 seasons at the culmination of the 2017/18 season.
Prior to 2001/02, Leverkusen had cautious optimism. A consistent side in the hunt for European qualification since the 1996/97 season, many fans were hoping to go a step further than they had in 1999/2000 when a final day 2-0 defeat to SpVgg Unterhaching, aided by a Michael Ballack own goal, and a 3-1 victory for Bayern Munich over Werder Bremen, saw Leverkusen miss out on their first league in history on goal difference. And yet, it was about to get even worse for Die Werkself. A season of finishing in second place in their three main competitions in the final match of each saw Leverkusen complete the most unwanted of trebles, a feat that had been previously achieved only once before, Barcelona in 1986, and since matched by Bayern Munich in 2012.
Leverkusen had one of the strongest and most exciting sides in Europe and the 4-1-4-1 system employed by manager Klaus Toppmöller, in what would prove to be his only full season in charge of the club, created problems for opposition teams. It was perfectly designed to get the most out of the players at his disposal. German international striker Oliver Neuville led the line in a similar fashion to that of a false nine role employed to much success by Barcelona and Spain during their golden years, and his willingness to drop deep to drag defenders out of their natural position was a key aspect to Bayer’s success.
As well as scoring the goals, 21 in all competitions, Neuville’s movement into deeper pockets of space allowed Michael Ballack to arrive into the box late and provide the biggest goal scoring threat. Having conceded the own goal which had conspired to help Leverkusen lose the league title on goal difference two years prior, Ballack had grown to be Leverkusen’s star player. The most attacking of the central midfield options, Ballack scored 17 league goals and seven in Champions League, one behind the league leaders Márcio Amoroso and Martin Max, and provided the driving force behind Die Werkself’s near-perfect season.
Yıldıray Baştürk provided cover for Ballack and was a key factor in distributing the ball forward quickly and accurately. Zé Roberto and Bernd Schneider were the outlets on the left and right flanks respectively and both added a handful of goals to aid their side’s efforts.
The back four often comprised of, from left to right, Diego Placente, Lúcio, Jens Nowotny and Zoltán Sebescen provided a solid base from which to work, but Carsten Ramelow’s role slightly in front of the back four allowed the two fullbacks to adopt a more attacking role. When his side had possession of the ball, Ramelow often dropped in between the two central defenders, creating a back three, allowing the full-backs to push forward.
The eccentric Hans-Jörg Butt appeared in goal in every league game for Leverkusen and even added two goals from the penalty spot. Aside from the usual starters, Ulf Kirsten chipped in with 11 goals from 32 appearances, and a young Dimitar Berbatov was crucial to the fight on all three fronts, with a vital goal in a narrow victory over Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals and a hat-trick in a 3-2 win against VfL Bochum in the DFB-Pokal.
By the end of October, Leverkusen were still unbeaten in the Bundesliga. Comfortable wins over Hansa Rostock (3-0), Freiburg (4-1), VfB Stuttgart (4-1) and 1860 Munich (4-1), as well as creditable 1-1 draws at home to Bayern Munich and away to Dortmund, had many fans daring to dream that the side dubbed “Bayer Neverkusen” could finally break their curse.
On the European stage, a comfortable 3-0 aggregate victory over 1991 European champions Red Star Belgrade saw them reach the first group stage, drawn against Barcelona, Olympique Lyonnais and Fenerbahçe. Two victories over the Turkish outfit and one against each of Barcelona and Lyon saw the Germans finish second in their group and progress to the second group phase.
By the end of the year, Leverkusen had risen to the top of the Bundesliga table, level on points but ahead on goal difference with Borussia Dortmund. Their unbeaten record had gone, but they had proven themselves a side to be feared, scoring a league-leading 44 goals in their opening 18 games. A 3-0 victory over SSV Jahn Regensburg, the Berbatov inspired 3-2 comeback victory against Bochum, and a narrow 2-1 triumph at Hannover 96 had seen Toppmöller’s side progress into the quarter-finals of the Pokal.
The second group stage of the Champions League had given Leverkusen a difficult task if they were to reach the knockout stage. At the time of the first game, the group featured Leverkusen, German league leaders, Deportivo La Coruña, Spanish league leaders, Arsenal, only six points off the lead in England, and Juventus, third and only five points behind the leaders in Italy. It was a group containing the eventual champions of England and Italy, and the runners-up in Germany and Spain. At the turn of the year, two matches had been played and each side had won one each, leaving the groups intriguingly poised.
Despite suffering heavy defeats away to Juventus (4-0) and Arsenal (4-1), Leverkusen managed to overcome their awayday struggles and a 3-1 victory at Deportivo saw the German side confirm their progression to the knockout stages, removing the future league champions of two of Europe’s top four leagues from the competition in the process.
Having reached the knockout stages in Europe by the start of April, Bayer had also pressed ahead in the league, building a four-point lead over Borussia Dortmund with just five games to go. Progress in the league and Champions League, combined with a 3-0 victory over 1860 Munich and 3-1 extra time victory against FC Köln to reach the Pokal final, created hope that a historic treble was on the cards. The team was playing well and with confidence, on an eight-match unbeaten streak in the league including a crushing 4-0 victory over title rivals Dortmund, and nothing seemed to be standing in their way.
A comfortable 2-0 win against Köln was sandwiched in between a tricky Champions League quarter-final tie against UEFA cup holders Liverpool. Managed by Gérard Houllier and boasting one of the best defences in Europe, Liverpool won the first leg at Anfield 1-0, a single Sami Hyypiä goal enough to leave Leverkusen needing to produce their best display of the season. In front of a 22,500 crowd at the BayArena, Leverkusen produced a blistering display to earn their place in the semi-finals.
An early long-range effort from Ballack, one which would breach any defence throughout football history, saw Leverkusen draw level in the tie, but Leverkusen’s subsequent pressure was resisted by Hyppiä and his defensive partners, and their resilience was rewarded as Abel Xavier stooped to head Liverpool back in front in the tie just before halftime.
A four-minute double, a determined header from Ballack and a composed finish from Berbatov after Liverpool failed to clear, saw the German outfit take the lead for the first time in the contest, and left them needing to hold out for 20 minutes to reach the semi-final. But it was not to be that simple, and with ten minutes remaining, Finn Jari Litmanen struck a well-placed shot into the bottom corner to give the team from Merseyside a second away goal, one which would see them through.
Brazilian central defender Lúcio, with Leverkusen throwing as many men forward as possible, was played through on goal with just five minutes remaining and he calmly slotted the ball through the legs of Jerzy Dudek to restore Bayer’s lead. It would prove to be the winning goal, with Bayer winning 4-2 on the night, and 4-3 on aggregate. The celebrations of the players and fans showed how much it meant to the club, and it felt like the season-defining moment in what could have been a historically successful campaign.
Back on the domestic front, and a 1-1 draw away to Hamburg felt like a result that would enable Dortmund to close the gap once again. But, Der BVB faltered themselves, losing 1-0 to Kaiserslautern, and with just three games remaining of the league season, Leverkusen retained their commanding five-point lead at the top.
A stumble in the form of a 2-1 home defeat to Werder Bremen meant the gap at the top was down to just two points. For a Leverkusen side that still retained a large proportion of the players from the failed title bid of 99/00, it was inevitable that the self-doubt would begin to creep into their minds. A tough away match at the home of the defending English champions Manchester United followed just four days later.
An early effort from Ole Gunnar Solksjær was inadvertently deflected into his own net by Boris Živković and saw The Red Devils take a 1-0 lead into half-time. A volley from star man Ballack drew Leverkusen level, but a Ruud Van Nistelrooy penalty five minutes later restored United’s advantage. But, as the Liverpool match proved, Leverkusen were not a team to roll over and admit defeat, and an opportunistic finish from Neuville 15 minutes from time saw the Germans restore parity and take the slender advantage into the second leg.
Despite the positives of the result from Old Trafford, Leverkusen’s faltering was still appearing. Away to relegation-threatened Nürnberg, Leverkusen only needed a draw to keep their advantage heading into the final day due to their superior goal difference. But a Marek Nikl goal condemned them to a 1-0 defeat, and Dortmund’s 4-3 win over Hannover put them one-point clear heading into the final match.
Back in Europe, half an hour into the semi-final second leg, United captain Roy Keane rounded Butt and slotted home to put United in front for the third time in the tie. The crowd at the BayArena, having seen their comfortable lead in the league evaporate, began to express their nerves, but Toppmöller’s side refused to be beaten on the European front. On the stroke of half-time, Neuville, receiving the ball on the edge of the area, turned sharply and fired a shot into the goal off the underside of the bar to draw Leverkusen level, and restore their advantage on away goals.
A strong defensive showing through the second half showed Leverkusen’s grit and determination and saw them progress through on away goals. With just three matches left of the season, the possibility of the treble was still very much alive. A final Bundesliga match, with Leverkusen needing a win and for Dortmund to drop points at home to Werder Bremen, a Pokal final against Schalke, and a Champions League final against Real Madrid stood between Bayer Leverkusen and immortality.
In the final league game of the season against Hertha Berlin, an early Ballack free-kick helped to settle the nerves of the Bayer fans, and when Ballack struck again just after the restart, Leverkusen were on their way to holding up their end of the bargain. A late consolation for Hertha caused some nerves to return, but a 2-1 victory meant that the fans were looking to the result at the Westfalenstadion in the hopes of receiving help from Bremen. Despite taking an early lead through Paul Stalteri, Bremen were unable to hold on with Jan Koller drawing Dortmund level before half-time and Ewerthon scoring the title-winning goal just fifteen minutes from time. Once again, Leverkusen had seen the title taken away from the grasp on the final day of the season. This year, this was only the beginning of the downfall.
Heading into the Pokal final, one of only two major titles Leverkusen have won (Pokal 1993, UEFA Cup 1988), Leverkusen were slight favourites and an early Berbatov strike set Leverkusen on their way. However, a Jörg Böhme effort just before half-time changed the momentum in the favour of Schalke and saw the scores level 1-1 at the interval. Quickfire goals from Victor Agali and Andreas Möller gave Schalke a two-goal lead and a late Ebbe Sand goal ended Leverkusen’s hope. A late Kirsten strike served nothing more than to add to the respectability of the scoreline, but, in the second of their three consecutive finals, Bayer had once again fallen short.
The Champions League final, held at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, saw Leverkusen, as the first side to reach the final having never won their domestic league, enter as underdogs to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, but the German side did not appear overawed by the occasion. An eighth-minute Raúl goal threatened to set Madrid on their way to a comfortable victory, but Lúcio powered a header past Madrid’s goalkeeper César five minutes later to bring Leverkusen straight back into the match.
On the verge of half-time, however, Zidane stepped up to fire Madrid back ahead, scoring one of the greatest Champions League final goals of all time. Patiently watching a looping Roberto Carlos cross onto his left foot, he fired a perfect volley into the top corner, past the diving Butt. It was a goal worthy of winning any final.
An injury to César gave hope to Leverkusen as they pressed hard for an equalizer, but even with the young, inexperienced Iker Casillas in goal, they were unable to break down Los Blancos, and Madrid held on to win their ninth European title.
In a season that promised so much until the very end, Bayer Leverkusen simply came away with nothing. The collapse didn’t end after the season unfortunately, and with the continued absence of Novotny to an injury sustained against Manchester United, and the sales of Ballack and Ze Roberto to Bayern, the club barely avoided relegation the following season. They finished 15th in the league, and Toppmöller was sacked in February 2003.
As if often said, history is written by the victors. And whilst it is natural that fans are Dortmund, Schalke, and Real Madrid will look back on the 2001/02 season with greater fondness, the qualities of the Leverkusen side of that year deserves their recognition. Whilst the current crop of Leverkusen stars (Jonathan Tah, Leon Bailey, Julian Brandt, Tin Jedvaj, Benjamin Henrichs, who are all under the age of 22) have the potential to become legends at the BayArena, the Leverkusen side of that infamous year should be looked at with fondness and deserve their place amongst the most exciting teams to have featured in this current century.