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Leverkusen's drei spell

Benfica have ended the season empty-handed after finishing runners-up in the league, cup and Europa League. In 2002, Bayer Leverkusen suffered similar disappointment as they ended up second-best in the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League.

"The football god is not from Leverkusen" - Michael Ballack, May 15, 2002

On April 21, Bayer Leverkusen were still on course for the most successful season in their history under new coach Klaus Toppmoller.

In the Bundesliga, they were two points clear of second-placed Borussia Dortmund with two games to play, and they had already secured their place in the final of the DFB-Pokal after defeating Cologne 3-1 the previous month. They were also preparing for a Champions League semi-final with Manchester United.

However, a 2-1 defeat at home to Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga the previous day had brought back painful memories of the 1999-2000 season, when a shock 2-0 loss to mid-table Unterhaching in their final game had allowed Bayern Munich to win the title on goal difference. "Bayer will never win anything," Bayern general manager Uli Hoeness said then. "When they play decisive games, they put their nappies on."

It was at this time that the seed for the nicknames "Vizekusen" - meaning "vice-kusen" or "secondary-kusen" - and "Neverkusen" was sown.

Toppmoller was serious about changing Leverkusen's image. During the Champions League quarter-final, when his team secured an epic 4-3 aggregate victory over Liverpool, he had channelled Winston Churchill in his team talk: "Never, never, never give in." This was a coach who, while in charge of Eintracht Frankfurt, had once taken a live eagle into the dressing room to illustrate to his players the nature of true aggression ("You have to grab the opponent like an eagle grabs its prey!"). Germany coach Rudi Voller said he saw in the 2001-02 squad "a winning mentality never seen before in Leverkusen", and Toppmoller, predictably, did not accept that defeat to Bremen signalled imminent collapse.

"There will be no second Unterhaching," he told Der Spiegel. "Fear does not exist for us. We believe in ourselves and will not bury our heads in the sand. We have a two-point lead, which should be enough to win the title."

He promised a reaction, and it arrived that Wednesday: Leverkusen twice came from behind at Old Trafford to take a 2-2 draw from the first leg of their European semi-final. "I'm very proud of my team," the coach said. "The football we played was inspired."

Three days later, though, Leverkusen's inspiration slipped away as they returned to domestic duty. A 1-0 defeat at Nurnberg, on a day when Dortmund beat Hamburg 4-3, allowed BVB to move to the top of the table. "Vizekusen" appeared to have suffered their second Unterhaching.

Toppmoller told FAZ he did "not see any parallels" with the 1999-2000 collapse and, holding out hope that Dortmund would lose to Bremen the following weekend, insisted: "I've always maintained that the championship will only be decided on the final day." However, the club's general manager, Reiner Calmund, appeared resigned to domestic disappointment. "When you have played such great football in the season, it hurts very, very much," he said, his voice cracking.

The gloom was not all-encompassing. Manchester United returned to the BayArena in midweek and, despite Roy Keane netting on 28 minutes, Oliver Neuville - playing with a broken toe - scored his team's third equaliser of the tie just before the break. Leverkusen resisted the second-half pressure - notably clearing Diego Forlan's goal-bound effort off the line in the 87th minute - to book their place in the final on away goals.

As the season entered its final month, then, Leverkusen could still hold out hope of success in three competitions. "This is a dream come true," Toppmoller said. "This is a time for cigarettes and drink, and then tomorrow I will go and see Real Madrid play Barcelona. This really is unbelievable and Manchester United are a fantastic team, but we have made the dream come true."

The following day, Real Madrid drew 1-1 to see off Barcelona 3-1 on aggregate and secure their place in the final. The Galacticos offered the most glamorous of opposition, and the most severe test, but Toppmoller and his men first had to concern themselves with a domestic double: Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga and then Schalke in the DFB-Pokal.

On May 4, they beat fourth-placed Hertha 2-1 thanks to a Michael Ballack brace, but Dortmund came from behind to beat Bremen by the same scoreline, leaving Bayer a point behind in second. "To finish as runners-up is our tradition," a rueful Calmund said. "To end up empty-handed really hurts." Toppmoller revealed he and the squad had cried together in the dressing room.

On May 11, they looked to bounce back as they took on Schalke in Berlin but, despite taking a 27th-minute lead through Dimitar Berbatov and enjoying the better of the first half, they found themselves level at the break as a result of Jorg Bohme's excellent 45th-minute free-kick. In the second half they collapsed, losing 4-2, with Ulf Kirsten's 89th-minute header offering little consolation. "We clearly dominated the first half. We could have been 2-0 up through Berbatov," Calmund said, referring to a 44th-minute chance that struck the side netting. "Instead it was 1-1. That turned the match on its head." Toppmoller, meanwhile, was sent to the stands by the referee, along with Schalke counterpart Huub Stevens.

Four days later, on May 15, Leverkusen faced Real Madrid at Hampden Park looking to redeem a season that had lurched into crisis at the last. The signs were not good. Madrid, celebrating their 100th anniversary, were returning to the stadium in which they had beaten another German side, Eintracht Frankfurt, 7-3 in 1960 in a performance widely regarded as one of the finest ever seen.

Toppmoller had been enchanted. "I'm a fan of Real Madrid," he said. "I have been since 1960. My first images of football were the European Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt. The memories of Di Stefano and Puskas are still with me today." Against the Spanish giants, featuring the likes of Raul, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, Toppmoller sought to downplay his side's chances: "Real are better than Leverkusen at everything in every respect."

It sounded defeatist, but for a time his approach seemed to pay dividends. Raul had put Madrid ahead after only eight minutes, collecting a long throw-in from Roberto Carlos before catching Hans-Jorg Butt off-guard ("I was caught on the wrong foot," the goalkeeper explained), but Leverkusen swiftly hit back, with Lucio heading home a Bernd Schneider free-kick. The momentum finally swung towards Madrid when Zinedine Zidane, the world's most expensive player, struck an exquisite volley to put his side ahead just before the break.

Leverkusen had chances to draw level. Berbatov headed over with five minutes to play, while substitute goalkeeper Iker Casillas pulled off a pair of injury-time saves to deny Yildiray Basturk and Berbatov. Butt even had the chance to make amends for the opening goal as he headed a free-kick wide, yet Madrid held firm, and the Galaticos would ultimately be considered worthy winners.

"We are proud of our team, even if we ended the season without the league, the cup and the Champions League," Calmund said. "Zidane alone is as expensive as our entire team. There is a good saying: Don't spend more than you have and don't piss higher than you can."

Toppmoller said his squad had been too small to cope with the "huge workload" their success had created, and added: "This is the worst day of my career. In the end it was an all-or-nothing game, but we couldn't get even the easiest chances over the line. This is so bitter. We just feel empty."

What happened next? That summer brought further disappointment for Michael Ballack, Carsten Ramelow, Oliver Neuville, Bernd Schneider and Hans-Jorg Butt as they were part of the Germany squad beaten 2-0 in the World Cup final by Brazil.

Toppmoller, meanwhile, was named Fussballtrainer des Jahres (Coach of the Year) for his efforts, but his second season at Leverkusen - with Ballack and Ze Roberto both sold to Bayern - was disastrous, and he was sacked in February 2003 with the club just one place above the relegation zone.

In 2010, Bayer decided to register "Vizekusen" as a trademark. "We decided to stop others from playing fast and loose with it," the club's communications director Meinolf Sprink explained. He stressed: "Our aim is not always to be second."


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