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  Monday, 13 May, 2002, 14:14 GMT 15:14 UK
Bayer 'Neverkusen'?
Bayer ended Manchester United's Champions League dreams
Michael Ballack has been an inspiration to Bayer

If Bayer Leverkusen are to avoid being called Bayer Neverkusen, then there can be no greater stage for the German side to shed their perennial bridesmaids tag than the Champions League final on Wednesday.

An unprecedented treble was within coach Klaus Toppmoller's grasp little more than two weeks ago, with a first-ever Bundesliga title on the horizon and a German Cup final against Schalke to look forward to.

But Bayer failed to hold off the late challenge of Borrusia Dortmund in the league and were beaten 4-2 in an ill-tempered cup final, with Toppmoller and the Schalke coach, Huub Stevens sent to the stands.

So Leverkusen lost out on a domestic double and, since disposing of Manchester United in the Champions League semi-finals, seem to have lost their way.


When they play decisive games they put their nappies on
Uli Hoeness

It is not the first time Bayer have choked at such a critical stage in the season.

Leverkusen famously threw away the chance to win their first German championship in 2000 when they lost their final game of the season to lowly Unterhaching courtesy of a Michael Ballack own-goal.

On the back of that defeat, the team were rechristened Bayer Neverkusen.

Uli Hoeness of Bayern Munich - who profited from that capitulation - remarked: "Bayer will never win anything. When they play decisive games they put their nappies on."

Nearly men

That Leverkusen have finished league runners-up four times in the last six season lends weight to Hoeness's claim.

But then they did not have the charismatic Toppmoller at the helm.

In his first season in charge of the club - owned outright by the pharmaceutical giant Bayer - Toppmoller has brilliantly masterminded their passage to the Champions League final.

Bayer Leverkusen manager Klaus Toppmoller
Toppmoller hopes to have something to celebrate on Wednesday

The group stages of Europe's elite competition saw Bayer comprehensively outclassed by Juventus in a 4-0 defeat and taken apart by Arsenal 4-1 at Highbury.

Yet they still finished top of their group, which also included the excellent Spaniards Deportivo La Coruna.

Toppmoller's men excelled in adversity, something which stood them in good stead when faced with a 1-0 deficit at the hands of Liverpool in the quarter-final second leg.

Few would have expected or predicted that Bayer - an exciting mix of German industry and Brazilian flair - would score four goals past one of Europe's most water-tight defences. They did.

Final trick

Surely Manchester United would prove just too big an obstacle for the German side to surmount in the semi-finals?

No.

Toppmoller, a keen student of tactics, executed his game plan to perfection at Old Trafford, securing a 2-2 draw, with the two away goals proving the deciding factor over the two legs.

Bayer Leverkusen's Lucio
Lucio embodies Bayer's spirit and style

Battered and bruised, Bayer's players held on for a 1-1 draw in the BayArena to leave Manchester United reflecting on what would end as a barren season.

Given the demands of combining the Champions League with domestic football, Bayer could even be forgiven their aforementioned failures.

A swollen fixture schedule coupled with a thin squad proved just too much for Toppmoller's warriors.

However, they should not fear Real who, in their centenary year, have also stumbled along this season, losing out to Valencia in the league and Deportivo in the King's Cup.

Bayer's domestic bubble has clearly burst, but the curly-haired Toppmoller may just have one more European trick up his sleeve.


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