German football can resemble a monopoly. The records are dominated by one club. Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal most times. For good measure, they have taken the most points ever in a top-flight season, registered the most wins, suffered the fewest defeats, scored the most goals and conceded the least.
Name a record, from the obvious to the obscure, and the chances are that Bayern possess it, including their run of 11 successive titles. And yet the longest unbeaten start to a season in the history of German football has been accomplished not by the resident superpower, but by their improbable challengers.
Bayer Leverkusen started last season with six defeats in seven games. Thirty matches into the current campaign, they have not lost in any competition. They were 1-0 and 2-1 down to VfB Stuttgart in the German Cup on Tuesday. Jonathan Tah’s injury-time goal took them through to the semi-finals: with two of the last four being lower-division clubs, a three-decade wait for silverware seems still likelier to end. A lone team had a 100 per cent record in the group stages of the Europa League: Xabi Alonso’s Leverkusen.
Yet the greatest significance lies with the Bundesliga, with the division that has everything except different champions. Bayer against Bayern on Saturday could be billed as the biggest match between two German clubs since the 2013 Champions League final; so, admittedly, could Thomas Tuchel’s bow as Bayern manager in April, when Borussia Dortmund’s league leaders were walloped 4-2. Then there followed the final-day drama in May when Dortmund let the title slip from their grasp. Bayern prevailed by default.
Yet it reinforced the impression that Bayern are the death star of German football, triumphing remorselessly, unstoppable even when underachieving. Not that they are now: this week Bayern billed themselves as “the best Bundesliga runners-up of all time”. Never before had the second-placed side collected 50 points from their first 20 matches. The leaders have 52. New standards are being set at the summit. Alonso’s transformation of Leverkusen could propel him to the top job at one of his former clubs, Liverpool. He may dislodge another, Bayern, from their perch.
A former teammate sees something familiar in Alonso’s team. The Bayern captain Manuel Neuer is one of their old guard and said: “It’s like how Xabi played when he was a player, he gained an insight into a good passing game, playing with a lot of possession, and he has passed this on to the team. He’s a player who really enjoyed having the ball, and his team have this character, where they want to have the ball, and not chase it.
“He took over the team in a very difficult moment and still showed straight away that things were only going to go in one direction. You noticed immediately that Xabi Alonso and Bayer Leverkusen are just a good fit for each other, and that has an effect on the players.”
Leverkusen were 17th when they appointed Alonso. They are top now. He won three Bundesligas in Bayern’s midfield. With every year of Bayern’s superiority, it has underlined the sense that something special is required to overcome them. Thus far, Leverkusen have produced it. In almost a year, they have only lost three times in 50 matches. This season, they have only dropped points in four Bundesliga games: one was at the Allianz Arena in September, when Exequiel Palacios’ 94th-minute equaliser has come to assume greater importance. Like Piero Hincapie’s 91st-minute winner against RB Leipzig three weeks ago, like Tah’s midweek decider, it shows Alonso’s side has spirit to accompany his technical expertise and tactical prowess.
That mentality has been required. German football can feel like an uneven playing field and perhaps still more so for Leverkusen in a game of this magnitude. Their top scorer Victor Boniface is injured. Bayern’s Harry Kane is not and could beat Robert Lewandowski’s record of 41 goals in a Bundesliga season. The England captain is a reason why Bayern at the most prolific team in the division but Leverkusen have the stingiest defence.
Circumstances can seem to favour Bayern. South Korea’s elimination from the Asian Cup means Minjae Kim is back, while Joshua Kimmich and Dayot Upamecano should be fit again. Bayern have the big names, Bayer the group forged into a formidable side by Alonso.
“This game might not decide the title race, but it will show how Leverkusen and Bayern compare right now,” said Patrik Schick, who will take Boniface’s place in Alonso’s attack. “I believe it will be very close.”
Perhaps the pressure is on Leverkusen; Dortmund ultimately cracked last season while, for the Rhineland club, the nickname of ‘Neverkusen’, the moniker bestowed on a team who could have won a treble but were instead runners-up in three competitions in 2002, highlighted their status as nearly men.
Yet Bayern have a different type of pressure. Neuer joined in 2011: his first season was the last when anyone other than the Bavarian giants won the Bundesliga. “A lot of people don’t know the feeling, to not win a title when you play for Bayern,” said the goalkeeper. “Thomas [Muller] and I both know it, from when Dortmund were champions.” A dozen years on, Leverkusen are the challengers. Alonso, who finished his footballing education at Bayern, puts his unbeaten record on the line in a reunion. Win and he could make an irrevocable mark on the German game.
Bayer Leverkusen v Bayern Munich at 5.30pm on Saturday 10 February, coverage is on Sky Sports Football