With the UEFA Champions League on its winter break, uefa.com will publish mid-term reports on the 16 remaining sides in the competition every day until 31 December. Today we look at last season's finalists Bayer 04 Leverkusen from Germany, who are finding their spectacular successes of 2001/02 hard to live up to.
The story so far
The heart of Leverkusen's side was ripped out by the summer losses of Michael Ballack and Zé Roberto to FC Bayern München. Without this pair and the injured defender Jens Nowotny, coach Klaus Toppmöller's side have looked distinctly average - a far cry from last season when they came so close to a famous treble but ended up empty-handed.
Leverkusen's critics were out in force after a terrible start to their domestic and European campaigns and they only scraped their way into the second group stage of the Champions League following a 6-2 defeat at Olympiakos Piraeus FC in their opening game. Drawn in Group A in the second group stage, Leverkusen's campaign again got off to a shaky start with defeats at home to FC Barcelona and away to Internazionale FC, which leaves them with plenty of ground to make up after Christmas if they are to harbour any hopes of a quarter-final place.
Barcelona coach Louis van Gaal praised Leverkusen recently for their technical proficiency and team ethic, saying they had a side of eleven players all drilled in playing good football. Indeed Toppmöller stressed after the Matchday Eight defeat against Inter that "we were not second best against either Barcelona or Inter". Yildiray Bastürk and Bernd Schneider have taken over as the main providers of creative inspiration.
Both are key to the cause and only if they are in form does the Leverkusen engine run smoothly. Brazilian striker França, who arrived with a big reputation over the summer, has all the qualities to become a major influence, but he has found it hard to adapt to the European game. His headed goal against Inter may just give him the confidence he needs. The return of defender and inspirational captain Nowotny from a knee injury after the winter break could help revive a side otherwise bereft of leaders.
Neither Schneider nor Bastürk is endowed with strong leadership qualities so in the absence of Nowotny and the retired Ulf Kirsten, Leverkusen lack a leader. With França yet to reach top form, they are also missing a consistent finisher, as Dimitar Berbatov, Oliver Neuville and Thomas Brdaric have all struggled for goals. Similarly midfield players Jan Simak, Hanno Balitsch, Daniel Bierofka and Christoph Preuss have not managed to maintain any consistent form. At the back, meanwhile, Nowotny's absence was compounded when Lucio suffered a foot injury which will sideline him until the new year.
Key man - Jens Nowotny
Captain Nowotny was injured on 30 April in the Champions League semi-final against Manchester United FC. His absence from the heart of the defence coincided with Leverkusen finishing runners-up in the Bundesliga, the German Cup and the Champions League. His eagerly awaited return, planned for the new year if his recovery from surgery continues, could be the spur the club need.
Best moment so far
Leverkusen's recovery both domestically and in Europe was kick-started by a 2-1 win in the Bundesliga against Bayern at the end of September. Despite having Brdaric sent off, goals from Brazil defender Lucio and Bierofka gave Leverkusen a hard-earned victory. In Europe, Marko Babic's two goals against Maccabi Haifa FC which earned the side their first points also proved something of a turning point in the first stage.
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