“He’s been the man of the season so far. I've always had the feeling that he could be the next Michael Ballack and he's certainly living up the expectations.”
So said Beckenbauer to German tabloid Bild. The subject of Der Kaiser’s uncharacteristic excitement? 19-year-old playmaker, Toni Kroos, of German ‘winter champions’ Bayer Leverkusen – for now.
For Kroos – a wonderfully gifted midfielder with a footballing maturity which belies his years – belongs, long-term, to Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich. Having spent last year on loan at the BayArena, Kroos was granted a second year by the Rhine due to the congested nature of Bayern’s squad. Leverkusen impressed many observers last year under the aegis of Bruno Labbadia (now coaching Hamburg), but lacked consistency and finished up 9th in a tightly-packed Bundesliga table; also losing the DFB Cup final. This term, the club once dubbed ‘Neverkusen’ for their innate ability to fluff their lines in league title-fights, cup finals and even the odd Champions League final, have led the similarly close-run title race for months.
And they’ve done it in some style. Unbeaten through the entire campaign (nine wins and eight draws so far), Leverkusen have taken on all-comers with their youthful squad, of which set-piece specialist Kroos has grown to become the creative fulcrum, supported ably by their stand-in captain Sami Hyypiä and led by veteran coach Jupp Heynckes. A multiple Bundesliga champion with Bayern in the late 80s and, more recently, Champions League winner at Real Madrid, who, as is the form, sacked him by way of celebration, Heynckes had been left on the managerial scrapheap after a string of failures at home and abroad.
Last season, however, the former Borussia Mönchengladbach striker enjoyed a renaissance in a successful cameo appearance at Bayern following Jürgen Klinsmann’s brief but chaotic spell in charge. Nevertheless, at the birth of the 2009-10 season, few expected any such heroics at (relatively) little Leverkusen. His winning blend of youth and experience has, so far, defied expectation; holding Louis Van Gaal’s resurgent Bayern, Schalke (coached by last year’s champion coach Felix Magath) and Hamburg at bay.
24-year-old goalkeeper René Adler is the impeccable last line of defence, ahead of whom Hyppiä (now in the record books as the man with the most unbeaten minutes played in Bundesliga history) has been an unsurpassable rock – restored to his early Liverpool pomp, away from the unforgiving pace of the Premier League. Bombarding full-back Gonzalo Castro (22) starred for Germany’s under-21s last summer and already has five caps in what is something of a problem position for the senior side.
A regular fixture in der Nationalmannschaft, Simon Rolfes is captain and Leverkusen’s destructive box-to-box force in the centre of the pitch, though currently talented Stefan Reinartz (20) deputises for his injured skipper. Lars Bender (twin of Dortmund’s Sven, also 20) is another exciting prospect in the engine room, while Chile's Arturo Vidal adds bite in the tackle.
Creativity comes primarily from Kroos (6 goals and 3 assists in 17 games), Swiss wide-man Tranquillo Barnetta and the currently injured Renato Augusto, signed from Flamengo in 2008. Turkish youngster Buruk Kaplan is on the verge of a first-team breakthrough and offers a sweet left foot – which he used to great effect in preserving the team’s unbeaten record with a late, deflected goal in the entertaining 2-2 draw with bottom club Hertha Berlin.
While no.9 Patrick Helmes (24 goals in his first season at the club last year) has sat out the remarkable run because of a torn cruciate ligament, his strike-partner Stefan Kießling has filled in the gaps skilfully. The tall, blond forward finds the net on a regular basis; showing great touch and balance (...for a big man) and intelligent interplay with his current partner, Swiss striker Eren Derdiyok.
All in all, it’s a group packed with promise, energy and an almost tangible determination. The perfect platform, perhaps, for a talent like Kroos to flourish – particularly in a World Cup year. Despite his tender age, his biggest fan Beckenbauer “wouldn’t be really surprised” if Jogi Löw takes him to South Africa next summer. To learn from the master, Michael Ballack, in such a rarefied atmosphere would be an ideal step-up in Kroos’ development before he inevitably returns to Bayern – who will have a significant creative vacancy following Franck Ribéry’s impending departure.
Curiously, Leverkusen’s most marketable stars, both ‘keeper Adler (born in Leipzig) and Kroos (Greifswald), are that all too rare occurrence in the modern era – successful footballers born east of the Berlin wall. They will surely be aiming to emulate the towering achievements of two fellow GDR-born Leverkusen graduates: Bernd Schneider and Ballack.That pair, along with Zé Roberto and Emerson, formed the midfield hub of the last nearly-great Leverkusen side of the early noughties. Kroos, whose brilliant double strike against Mönchengladbach last weekend ensured his team would go into the winter break ahead of the pack, has the prodigious talent to help hold off the challenge of his parent club and finally bring some glory to the success-starved Rhinesiders.