Oct 17 (Reuters) - Amid all the talk about bitter rivals Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, it is easy to forget that a third team are also mounting a challenge for the Bundesliga this season.
Low-key Bayer Leverkusen are level on points with second-placed Dortmund, only one behind leaders Bayern and will go top, at least briefly, if they win at Hoffenheim on Friday (1830). Yet nobody seems to be paying much attention.
Sami Hyppia's team have the fourth-worst average attendance in the 18-team Bundesliga, attracting around 28,000 fans, and even neighbours Cologne, who play in the second division, seem to get more publicity.
Their fortunes are epitomised by striker Stefan Kiessling who has been one of the Bundesliga's most consistent strikers over the year and was top scorer last team, but has been repeatedly overlooked by Germany coach Joachim Loew who has not picked him for three years.
It was a similar situation last year when they barely raised a flicker as they finished third behind all-conquering Bayern and their arch-rivals Dortmund to qualify for the Champions League.
Sponsored by the pharmaceutical giants who lend their name to the team, Leverkusen like to be seen as the most family-friendly outfit in the Bundesliga.
Rival supporters snipe that the Leverkusen are a "plastic club" with no genuine fan base and also take delight in labelling them "Neverkusen", thanks to their reputation for fading at the finish.
Leverkusen have never won the Bundesliga, but finished runners-up four times between 1997 and 2002 when they famously lost a five-point lead in the closing stages and were beaten in both the Champions League and German Cup finals.
There was another second-place finish in 2011.
Michael Schade, their new managing director who took over this month, said it was time for them to get more recognition.
"People have not really noticed what Bayer has achieved by finishing third last season, it doesn't seem to have really registered," he said during a sponsors' event on Tuesday. "The stadium is not sold out frequently enough.
"We must try and improve in the public relations and marketing areas."
Schade said that Leverkusen were planning to repeat their 2010 close season trip to China next year to try and drum up international interest, and were also looking eastwards for future sponsors.
"There are only so many slices you can get out of the German cake," he said.
Friday's opponents Hoffenheim are one of three teams with a worse attendance record than Leverkusen and, with 20 goals both for and against, have the second-best attack and worst defence in the league.
Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund both appear to have relatively straightforward fixtures at home on Saturday against midtable opposition, with the Bavarians hosting Mainz 05 and Dortmund entertaining Hanover 96. (Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Justin Palmer)