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From ‘Neverkusen’ to title favorite: Xabi Alonso is Europe’s most wanted coach as Bayer Leverkusen runs away with Bundesliga

Xabi Alonso looks on during Bayer Leverkusen’s game against Köln. Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

For one of Germany’s most established soccer teams, earning a nickname for your propensity to fall short at the final hurdle isn’t ideal.

For Bayer Leverkusen it was the moniker ‘Neverkusen,’ notably in 2002 when a team, which included Michael Ballack, Oliver Neuville, Dimitar Berbatov, Lúcio and Zé Roberto, finished a point behind Bundesliga winner Borussia Dortmund, lost the German Cup final and the Champions League final to Real Madrid thanks to Zinedine Zidane’s wonder volley.

However, after years of hurt and ridicule from opposition fans, Leverkusen’s fortunes might have finally turned, and the club’s renaissance has a lot to do with one man.

Xabi Alonso was appointed the club’s head coach in October 2022, with Leverkusen languishing near the bottom of the German table. In just under 18 months, the former Spain international has guided Leverkusen to top of the Bundesliga table, wowing fans and reportedly earning himself plenty of interest from some of Europe’s top clubs.

Alonso has been linked to impending managerial vacancies at two of his former teams – the Bundesliga’s second-placed Bayern Munich and Liverpool of the English Premier League.

Alonso speaks with his Leverkusen players during their game against Köln. Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

The 42-year-old began his professional playing career at Real Sociedad before moving to Liverpool in 2004 where he starred for the Merseyside club for five years, including the club’s famous 2005 Champions League victory in Istanbul, before moving to Real Madrid for five more years. He ended his playing career with three trophy-filled seasons at Bayern Munich.

For the Spanish national team, he was a regular during the nation’s golden period. As part of a star-studded midfield, Alonso won 114 caps, winning the World Cup once and two European Championships.

Prior to being appointed Leverkusen’s manager, Alonso had coached Real Madrid’s Under-14 team and Real Sociedad’s B team.

Whether he remains in Leverkusen or chooses to move on at the end of the season, Alonso has become the hottest managerial property in Europe through his ability to transform Leverkusen’s fortunes and the stylish football his players have showcased.

Alonso has stressed he remains focused on his current job with Leverkusen – saying in February that “it is normal to have questions but it is not an issue for me” – and his team has showed no signs of letting up.

Finishing strong

Sunday’s 2-0 victory over rivals Köln in a Rhein derby match was the latest in a long line of impressive performances from Leverkusen as the club extended its lead at the top of the Bundesliga table to 10 points following Bayern’s draw on Friday.

The victory was a perfect encapsulation of the job Alonso has done. The team dominated possession, had the lion’s share of the chances and two of the team’s stars who have blossomed under his leadership – defenders Jeremie Frimpong and Alejando Grimaldo – scored the goals.

Grimaldo joined in the summer from Benfica with little fanfare before going onto become a potent attacking threat, scoring nine and assisting nine from left back. Frimpong has had a similarly effective season from right back, scoring eight goals and providing six assists.

Alonso’s deployment of a back three, two defensive midielders and versatile attacks has consistently bamboozled defenses. John Muller of The Athletic has described Alonso as wanting “his team to play it short, on the grass and straight up the middle so fast it’ll make your head spin.”

The win means Leverkusen has not lost a game all season, extending the club’s unbeaten run to 34 games in all competitions.

“There are still a few games to play. We have seen in the past what else can happen,” Leverkusen defender Jonathan Tag told Dazn after the victory over Köln. “It’s important to maintain focus.”

Grimaldo scores Leverkusen’s second goal against Köln. Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Leverkusen has capitalized on an inconsistent season from Bayern, the winner of the last 11 Bundesliga titles, but it has done so in emphatic fashion. So much so that Bayern have decided to call time on Thomas Tuchel’s tenure as head coach at the end of this season.

Alonso’s team has had plenty of statement victories along the way this season, none more so than its 3-0 demolition of Bayern in February, a win which turned Leverkusen from title contenders to favorites.

There are 10 games remaining in the Bundesliga season and Leverkusen is the strong favorite to win its first ever league title. And with Leverkusen in semifinals of the domestic cup and the round-of-16 stage of the Europa League, Alonso could cap off a memorable second season in first-team management with a hat-trick of trophies.

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