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  Monday, 17 February, 2003, 11:01 GMT
Auf wiedersehen Toppmoeller
Toppmoller was sacked after Leverkusen's home defeat to Hansa Rostock
Topmoller has lost his Midas touch

Just nine months after leading Bayer Leverkusen close to the edge of a wonderful treble Klaus Toppmoeller finds himself amongst the ranks of the unemployed.

Last season Toppmoeller's team were mockingly dubbed 'Bayer Neverkusen' after finishing runners up in the Champions League, Bundesliga and German Cup.

This season has proved even more painful.

A 2-1 defeat by Hansa Rostcock on Saturday - Leverkusen's fifth in a row in the league - left them just one point off the drop zone, prompting Toppmoeller's sacking.

Yet less than 12 months ago he was one of the most sought-after coaches in Europe.

After claiming eye-catching wins against Deportivo La Coruna, Juventus and Barcelona, Leverkusen eliminated both Liverpool and Manchester United in the knock-out stages.

Bayer's achievements were all the more remarkable given that Topmoeller eschewed the dour, defensive approach that had brought success to German clubs in the past.

But fans at the BayArena would have gladly swapped all the plaudits they received for just one trophy.

While defeat to Real Madrid was no disgrace, Bayer capitulated to Schalke in the German Cup final and blew a five-point lead to hand the Bundesliga title to Borussia Dortmund.

It was the fourth time in six years that Leverkusen had finished runners-up.

In the summer prize asset Michael Ballack jumped ship to Bayern Munich and was quickly followed by Brazilian midfielder Ze Roberto.

Replacements for the duo should have been the priority but instead Toppmoeller spent almost 9m on striker Franca and defender Juan.

Neither Brazilian has yet impressed.

Jan Simak and Christoph Preuss have also disappointed, although Daniel Bierokfa, signed from 1860 Munich, looks a good acquisition.

Jens Nowotny is stretchered off against Manchester United
Bayer have missed influential skipper Jens Nowotny

Leverkusen have been unfortunate with injuries, notably Jens Nowotny.

The club captain tore cruciate ligaments against Manchester United last May and made an abortive comeback last month only for his right knee to collapse once again.

Nowotny's plight is symptomatic of the malaise at Leverkusen - the scars from last season, both physical and mental, are still not healed.

"The players are still sitting in the cinema dreaming of last season," admitted managing director Reiner Calmund.

"Unfortunately they haven't realised the film has finished."

The club are bank-rolled by pharmaceutical giants Bayer - the company that patented the aspirin.

Yet if the side cannot shrug off the hangover from last season's failures, Leverkusen supporters could be reaching for the medicine cabinet once again come May.

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.

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