Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga reign has finally met its match: Leverkusen

LEVERKUSEN - Alejandro Grimaldo of Bayer 04 Leverkusen celebrates the 2-0 during the Bundesliga match between Bayer 04 Leverkusen and FC Bayern Munchen at DE Bay Arena on February 10, 2024 in Leverkusen, Germany. ANP | Hollandse Hoogte | GERRIT VAN COLOGNE (Photo by ANP via Getty Images)

In Germany, for decades, they've been known as Neverkusen, a team defined by "nearly," a club resigned to "not quite." They were not supposed to lead the uprising. As Bayern Munich reigned, strengthening its grip on the Bundesliga, winning nine, 10, 11 straight titles, they, Bayer Leverkusen, were distant, absent. They watched from afar as Bayern occasionally stumbled; but whenever the door crept ajar, they were nowhere to be found.

Until 2023-24. Until the Leverkusen Revolution. Until now.

Leverkusen beat Bayern 3-0 at the BayArena on Saturday. But they did not stun the perennial champs. This was not an upset. It was everything Leverkusen has built toward under head coach Xabi Alonso. And it was the firmest expression yet of a statement that will startle and stir all of European soccer.

Bayern Munich's reign has, finally, met its match.

Saturday's win took Leverkusen five points clear at the top of the Bundesliga. The proverbial door is open, with 13 games to go. But not because Bayern has faltered. The champs entered Saturday's match on pace for 85 points, their fourth-best tally ever. The door is only ajar because Leverkusen has forcibly opened it.

Alonso and undervalued players have opened it with flowing, shape-shifting football. They have not lost in 31 games this season, across three different competitions, in part because they are difficult to define. They pass and move like Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. They defend and counter like Jose Mourinho's 2012 Real Madrid.

They did all of that and more on Saturday. Florian Wirtz, a reborn wunderkind, exploded through midfield in the 18th minute, and nearly set up a Leverkusen opener. Bayern's Dayot Upamecano eventually scraped away a dangerous rebound. But Leverkusen took the ensuing throw-in quickly, and caught the champions off guard.

Sacha Boey, Bayern's latest solution to an injury crisis at fullback, fell asleep at the far post.

Josip Stanišić, a fullback deemed surplus by Bayern and loaned out to Leverkusen over the summer, snuck behind Boey and put the hosts ahead of his parent club.

Leverkusen had less of the ball but more of the chances throughout 90 minutes. They had eight shots on goal to Bayern's one, and 1.5 Expected Goals (xG) to Bayern's 0.6. They never once looked like they'd lose a game that their club, throughout its history, had almost never won. They doubled their lead five minutes after halftime, and buried second thoughts.

They punctuated a famous win in stoppage time. And then they partied.

They are wholly unencumbered by failures of the past. They are nothing more, nothing less than a brilliant soccer team.

Wirtz and others weren't even alive when the Neverkusen tag began to stick, around the turn of the century. Leverkusen settled for four second-place finishes in a span of six Bundesliga seasons beginning in 1996, ending in 2002. In 2000, the club's best-ever team reached the Champions League final and DFB Pokal final — but lost both.

So they became Vizekusen — runner-up-kusen. They haven't won a trophy of any kind since. And they've never won the Bundesliga.

Their overlord, on the other hand, Bayern Munich, had won 11 consecutive titles. In some of those 11 seasons, Bayern lagged but nobody capitalized. In others, the so-called Rekordmeister ran away from the pack. And this, 2023-24, easily could have been the latter.

Bayern, despite injuries and constant pessimistic chatter, took 50 points from its first 20 games, the sixth-best pace in league history. Its underlying numbers were those of a tyrant, a dominant force, an untouchable ruler. They were better than 2017-18, when Bayern topped the league by 21 points. They were better than every season since, each of which ended with a familiar outcome.

But along came Alonso and Leverkusen, who've been even better. With shrewd summer signings — including Granit Xhaka from Arsenal and Victor Boniface from Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium — they have become a versatile machine. They can can stifle opponents and blitz them. Or they can lull opponents to sleep in possession, unbalancing them with the ball, stringing together patient attacks that tickle purists and go viral — even when the clips stem from friendlies.

They have shown character, again and again, coming from behind to win and nab points. They stole two from Bayern back in September, with a 94th-minute equalizer. They returned from winter break to win back-to-back games in stoppage time.

Some have suggested that their late heroics were unsustainable. That their underlying numbers might predict regression. That their lead was slim and the spring was long, long enough for Bayern to rise, as it always does.

But Saturday squashed all fears and hesitancy. The Bundesliga driver's seat is Leverkusen's. The king has been pulled from his throne, with only three months to recover it.