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Dec 7, 2011

Leno's love for Leverkusen

Two personnel decisions made headlines in Germany even before a single ball had been kicked on matchday fifteen. Last Wednesday, Bayer Leverkusen announced they had agreed terms with VfB Stuttgart and would sign Bernd Leno, the goalkeeper they had loaned four months earlier, for a transfer sum that could reportedly come to €8 million, depending on various factors.

The announcement capped off one of the most amazing success stories of recent months, perhaps of the season so far. In fact, it's a Cinderella tale involving almost a handful of main characters that could be a textbook example for how quickly things change in football these days.

It is worth remembering, for instance, that Leverkusen still have one Rene Adler under contract - the man who was supposed to keep goal for Germany at the 2010 World Cup. But, as seems to happen so often with Adler, disaster struck at the worst possible moment. Seven weeks before the tournament in South Africa, Adler broke a rib (incidentally, in a game against Stuttgart) and was ruled out of what should have been his career highlight.

Adler was healthy during the following season and played in almost every league game. But in July, just when a new coach - Robin Dutt - had come in and while Adler was negotiating an extension of his contract, which runs out next summer, his knee gave in and had to be operated on.

The club doctors said Adler could be sidelined for up to six months, which forced Dutt to promote one of the two replacement goalkeepers, the German-born American David Yelldell or young Fabian Giefer. The coach tried Yelldell in the Cup and Giefer in the league. He must have been unhappy with both, because in early August, Leverkusen approached VfB Stuttgart, who had just called up the local boy Leno (born 12 miles from Stuttgart) to the first-team squad. Leverkusen loaned him out until the end of the year, hoping Adler would be able to play the second half of the season for them.

Despite his young age and the fact he'd never played higher than the third division, Leno was an immediate success, becoming only the third goalkeeper in Bundesliga history who managed to keep a clean sheet in his first three league outings while racking up rave plaudits and top ratings. Leverkusen quickly entered into talks with Stuttgart about Leno's future, but for a long time it looked as if the phenom would indeed have to return to VfB in January.

But last week, Leverkusen learned Adler had suffered a setback during his rehab, which meant he would in all likelihood not be fit at the end of the winter break. This forced Bayer's hand and resulted in a transfer which made a teenage player who had only 13 Bundesliga games under his belt the second most expensive goalkeeper in league history (behind, of course, Manuel Neuer but ahead of Frank Rost, who joined Schalke from Werder Bremen for €6.5m in 2002).

Two days later, and with many eyes on him, Leno appeared entirely unperturbed and kept another clean sheet, as Bayer defeated Hoffenheim 2-0. Truth be told, though, the visitors didn't give him much trouble, underlining the fact they are the Bundesliga club which is fading most quickly at the moment. While Hoffenheim's league position - they are in mid-table - still looks fairly acceptable, the team has collected only two points from the last five games and too often looks like a side that isn't quite aware of how close the danger zone is.

Hamburg, meanwhile, are moving equally fast - but in a different direction. On Sunday, they defeated Nuremberg, another downwardly mobile club, in the same fashion they had beaten Hoffenheim two weeks earlier (through a Paolo Guerrero goal near the 25-minute mark and a Marcell Jansen strike around the 65-minute mark) and are unbeaten in eight competitive games.

The team's sudden rise is exemplified by goalkeeper Jaroslav Drobny. He made so many mistakes during the first weeks that some fans unfurled a "Drobny out!" banner for the home game against Schalke in early October, which Drobny's team-mate Mladen Petric then angrily ripped off the railing. Drobny promptly had a solid game (though Hamburg lost) and has been outstanding since. Against Nuremberg, he even set up a goal when his long punt found Guerrero.

Which brings us back to goalkeepers. One of the key players in the Adler-Leverkusen-Leno-Stuttgart saga who hasn't yet been mentioned is Sven Ulreich, VfB's 23-year-old No. 1. Like Drobny, he has been through a difficult situation: in February, coach Bruno Labbadia surprisingly dropped him for the Europa League home game against Benfica. Like Drobny, this seems to have made him stronger: when an injury to the stand-in goalkeeper then forced Labbadia to bring on Ulreich in the second half, he reacted with a string of fine saves and has kept up this form since. Which, naturally, made it a lot easier for Stuttgart to sell Leno.

A stern test will await Ulreich next weekend, though, when VfB host a Bayern Munich side that proved largely unruffled by the most recent negative results and deservedly beat old rivals Bremen 4-2. Neither the scoreline nor the details, such as the fact two of those four goals came from the penalty spot, really tell the story of the game, though, as Bayern were clearly in command, inspired by an enthusiastic Franck Ribery.

The win sent Bayern back into first place, because Monchengladbach and Dortmund shared the spoils in a good but not great game among contenders. Because that's what Gladbach, based on this performance, seem to be this season. Despite missing their best player, midfielder Marco Reus, they allowed the reigning league champions very few chances while confirming they have also markedly improved their attacking game. There is at least one Bundesliga team every season that challenges utterly unexpectedly - all the signs are it will be Gladbach this year.

Which leaves the second personnel decision. On Friday, 20 minutes before Leno took to the field against Hoffenheim, Theo Zwanziger, the president of the German FA (DFB) announced he would step down next October, perhaps even earlier. It came as a surprise, it made headlines and it elicited comments - but it wasn't the affair of state it would have been in a different era.

In Germany, where the professional game was legalised late and football was always steeped in an amateur tradition, the DFB president was for a long time called the second most important man in the country, behind only the chancellor (and, some would say, not even behind him). But eleven years ago, the two professional leagues effectively made themselves independent from the DFB by forming the DFL, the German Football League. Since then, the DFB has lost a lot of its power and prestige and Zwanziger in particular has not had an easy time in office, since one of the few groups he is still in charge of has given him many headaches over the past years - the referees.

Zwanziger, who is also a member of both UEFA's and FIFA's executive committee, said it was all taking up too much of his time. However, he promised that he would continue to pursue one of his pet issues: taking the 2022 World Cup away from Qatar. We can't tell you whether he will be successful or not, but we can tell you not to bet against Bernd Leno being Germany's goalkeeper in 2022.

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