Before the game, Bayer Leverkusen had been the best-ever second-placed team in the history of Bundesliga, with 34 points from 14 games. After the game, they were still the best-ever second-placed team in the history of the Bundesliga, with 37 points from 15 – but somehow, the title felt just that little more apt.
Sami Hyypia's men hadn't just won the "Vize-Duell", the runners-up duel, as Ruhrnachrichten and other media outlets had dubbed their away game at Borussia Dortmund on Saturday with a degree of cynicism. This was more. This was redemption. "It was really important to show (the whole of) Germany what we can do," said the sporting director Rudi Völler, full of pride. "This showed what is possible," said Hyypia, and the bullish captain Simon Rolfes went much further than any Leverkusen player had dared to venture over the last decade. "Of course the championship is possible," said the midfielder.
Only 10 days ago, Leverkusen had been lower than low, frustrated by the fact that they had seemingly developed a unique talent in European football: for the second consecutive game, they had managed to make Manchester United look like a really good team. The performance in the 5-0 defeat at home had been so abject that it was impossible not wonder about the side's character.
Völler got so angry in a press conference last week that he had to be admitted to hospital with kidney stones, but not before he had made an impassioned plea for the recognition of the club's success over the last few decades ("in the 80s, you could greet every single member of the stadium crowd with a handshake and the players were embarrassed to wear the shirt with the Bayer cross") and castigated former chief executive Wolfgang Holzhäuser for inventing the self-deprecating marketing ploy of registering "Vizekusen" as a trademark. ("Neverkusen," would have been the English equivalent.) "It's all nonsense, this talk of a philosophy," he said. "There's only one truth and it'll never change, 100%: the only truth and philosophy that matters lies on the pitch."
Well, Leverkusen delivered truth and conciliation at the Signal Iduna Park. Hyypia and his back-room staff outsmarted Jürgen Klopp by pinning back the Borussia wide players with incredibly high full-backs, who sometimes went even further up to press the makeshift defence. The goal was the perfect example: Emre Can intercepted a sloppy pass from Leverkusen old boy Manuel Friedrich, and two quick passes played in Heung Min-son. The South Korean rounded Roman Weidenfeller and slotted home for what proved to be the winner. Leverkusen did everything that Dortmund usually do, but they did it better, with sharper passing, higher intensity, a bit of measured violence and oodles of cleverness in the second half, when they disrupted the flow with small fouls and resolute defending.
"This was the best performance of the season," said Völler, and he was right. "Control, aggression, movement – we had a damn good organisation on the pitch," Rolfes said. Even Emir Spahic's silly dismissal – the Bosnian had shoved Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the face – didn't make much of a difference. Leverkusen kept their bottle and structure, while Dortmund lost Sokratis to an even sillier second yellow for dissent and two more players to ankle injuries. Nuri Sahin twisted his foot without opposition interferences; Sven Bender, the famed "Iron Manni" (his nickname is Manni, after the former Bayern midfielder Manni Bender), was felled by a late and rather nasty tackle from Jens Hegeler.
"If you want to beat Leverkusen, you have to be really good," said Jürgen Klopp – who presumably hasn't watched too much Premier League football this season – "but we weren't today." The Dortmund coach wasn't at his cuddly best after the final whistle. Asked about Leverkusen's six-point lead ahead of his third-placed team, he acidly remarked that "three points from Hoffenheim" were included in that tally, in reference to Stefan Kiessling's ghost goal. (Hoffenheim, incidentally put out a remarkably witty Christmas card on Monday. "Especially for the net," read the caption, "wishing you a merry Christmas and many perfect hits/goals for 2014") Once again, however, Bayer proved more than equal to this verbal challenge. "Jürgen Klopp also has the right to be a bad loser sometimes," countered Völler.
Hanging on to the coat-tails of a nearly out-of-this-world Bayern has been a pretty remarkable feat, especially with Leverkusen's relatively thin squad. Dortmund haven't been able to do it, on the contrary: they look like a side for whom the winter break can't come soon enough. They'll do well to defend third spot against the resurgent Gladbach and need to use up their last reserves – in both senses of the word – to get out of the Champions League group stage, away to Marseille on Wednesday. "We've had better spells, we have to deal with it," said Klopp, who'll have to field an experimental line-up in France.
Dortmund are not quite yet in crisis, however. Positive results in the remaining three games in Europe and the league will see them finish 2013 exactly where they want to be. And Leverkusen will be third in the league on goal-difference, at worst, which translates as "close to nirvana". The mere fact that Heung could talk about "challenging Bayern" for the title without anyone starting to laugh at weekend is a reward in itself. Now all they want for Christmas is to be in the draw for the Champions League knockout round. "If you win at Dortmund, you can also win at Sociedad," said Hegeler. Ironically enough, that might not suffice. Leverkusen must also rely on United showing up against Shakhtar on Tuesday night, too.
Results: Nürnberg - Mainz 1-1 (15 games without a win is sadly a new Bundesliga record for the Franconians), Gladbach - Schalke 2-1 (with two down and one to go, S04 boss Jens Keller must at least win the third of his three finals, v Basel on Wednesday, to keep his job) Bremen - Bayern 0-7 (Werder coach Robin Dutt was so shocked by the embarrassing defeat that he got confused about the opposition. "We played with two different systems against Barcelona today," he said. Still, that was very useful to know) , Stuttgart – Hannover 4-2, HSV – Augsburg 0-1, Frankfurt – Hoffenheim 1-2, Dortmund – Leverkusen 0-1, Freiburg – Wolfsburg 0-3, Braunschweig – Hertha 0-2.