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Now is the time for The Neverkusen

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Phil Minshull | 18:45 UK time, Monday, 1 February 2010

Who saw Bayer Leverkusen's 3-1 win over Freiburg on Sunday night? I did.

From questions and comments in recent weeks, I knew that there is considerable interest in what's happening in the Bundesliga so instead of shivering at the Vicente Calderon and watching Atletico Madrid's latest exercise in self-destruction, I decided to cajole a reluctant local bar owner into the slightly unusual act of putting German football on one of his TV screens.

What I saw confirmed what I had seen watching Bayer earlier this season, that the Werkself might just, finally, be about to put their reputation of being the Bundesliga bottlers behind them.

Sami HyppiaSami Hyypia appears rejuvenated by his move to Bayer

Having finished runners-up four times since 1997, and without ever having won the German title, they may be on the cusp of partially atoning for all their disappointments and near-misses.

Of course, watching a game on a small screen doesn't compensate for being in the BayArena itself, and beating a free-falling side that has now lost its last four games and not won since November doesn't necessarily confirm championship credentials either.

However, it was in just these sort of games that they have dropped critical points in the past. Over the second half of last season they slid from third to ninth and in 2007-08 they lost five out of their last 10 games against teams that were at the time in the lower half of the table.

So what has brought about the new, resilient Bayer that could consign to history the images of fans from the so-called family-friendly club burning their shirts in frustration, notable after a tormented few weeks at the end of the 2001-02 season when they were undone in the Champions League final by a spectacular goal from Real Madrid's Zinedine Zidane, lost in the German Cup final, and were crowned 'winter champions' only to lose the plot down the home straight and finish second to Borussia Dortmund.

The answer, to lift a quip from a Bayer fans web site which noted that the club was founded by and inexorably linked to a pharmaceutical company, is a double dose of Preparation H - Heynckes and Hyypia.

Bayer coach Jupp Heynckes, with a pragmatism that had been absent under his immediate predecessors Michael Skibbe and Bruno Labbadia, has managed to insert some steel into his defence without clipping the wings of his creative and attacking midfield leading primarily by Toni Kroos.

Maybe it's been coincidence but whenever I have watched Bayer this season, like on Sunday evening, Kroos's work in tandem with Stefan Kiessling has been outstanding.

The pair have scored eight and 13 goals respectively this season, the latter leading the Bundesliga marksmen, and they could have earned themselves places in Joachim Low's South Africa-bound squad.

It's just a pity that should Bayer finally win the Bundesliga that the hugely talented Kroos, who has just turned 20, will be on his way back to Bayern Munich in the summer after his 18-month loan spell by the Rhine.

Few imagined that Heynckes was about to revisit his glory days with Bayern when he was appointed in June, in the wake of Bayer's underwhelming season which culminated in them failing to qualify for Europe after losing in the German Cup final to Werder Bremen.

No, I'm not referring Heynckes' rescue act of last season but, for those without long memories, his first stint with the German giants between 1987 and 1991 when he won two Bundesliga crowns.

It's also worth remembering that he lifted the 1998 Champions League with Real Madrid before being capriciously sacked three days later.

Stefan KiesslingStefan Kiessling is currently the leading scorer in the Bundesliga

Because of his Madrid connection, I have always had a soft spot for Heynckes and so I'll drop any pretence of impartiality and say I'm rooting for him to keep Bayer on track make their own little bit of history.

His arrival at Real Madrid coincided with mine in Spain and his first press conference as their coach in 1997 was my very first assignment in the Spanish capital.

He has always struck me as an essentially decent human being, a German version of Bobby Robson, if you will, without quite the rampant enthusiasm or eccentricities. I've certainly never heard anyone speak ill of him, apart from Real Madrid board directors circa 1998 and, as they often say, there are two sides to every story.

Just like Heynckes, many people thought that Hyypia's glory days were behind him when he moved from Liverpool to Bayer in the summer, sped on his way with the best wishes of The Kop.

Now 36, and after 10 distinguished years at Anfield, Hyypia appears rejuvenated by the change of surroundings and the chance of regular first team football again.

The Finn has been arguably the best central defender in the Bundesliga this season and with the German national team goalkeeper Rene Adler behind him, the pair have maintained a sense of stability and solidity at the back as well as Leverkusen's unbeaten record.

Hyypia has been open about the fact that he is hugely motivated by the possibility of winning a league title, something he was unable to do in his decade at Liverpool despite all his other honours during his time there.

The season is still far from over yet. Bayern Munich are breathing down their neck with Louis van Gaal's men having forgotten their early season problems and rattled off seven successive wins to leave them only two points adrift of Bayer.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling that Bayer fans might soon be able to stop using their self-mockingly nickname of 'The Neverkusen'.

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