Xabi Alonso leads Bayer Leverkusen to the brink of the Bundesliga title

Young coach Xabi Alonso is about to lead underdogs Bayer to a historic Bundesliga title. He is attracting interest from Liverpool and Bayern Munich

Xabi Alonso doesn’t yet dare speak of winning the Bundesliga but his team is playing like a champion inexorably closing in on the German title. Bayer Leverkusen passed its latest test Sunday with a mature performance in a 2-0 win over Wolfsburg, three days after returning from Baku, Azerbaijan, where it came from two goals down to draw 2-2 at Qarabağ in the Europa League.

Leverkusen is unbeaten in 36 games across all competitions this season – a German record. While capable of big wins like the 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich last month, Leverkusen overcame Wolfsburg with patience for its 21st win in the league. It kept the team 10 points ahead of 11-time defending champion Bayern with nine rounds remaining.

But Alonso is refusing to speak about the title just yet. “April,” he replied Sunday when asked when it will be OK to mention it. The 42-year-old coach is in his first senior management job after a stellar playing career for Spain, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Real Sociedad and Bayern. Alonso started his coaching career in Madrid’s youth setup before spending three years as a reserve team coach at Sociedad.

Always unhurried, Alonso’s ethos has clearly made its way through to the players. He said: “We have a clear idea that when we have control, when we show patience, we play better. And that’s when we have better results, better performances. That was the tendency this season, particularly here at home. Normally we want to force the initiative. The players know when we want to play fast, when we have to play it short. I don’t have a joystick on the bench to decide that. They have to decide, and when I see that the players make good decisions, normally we play better.”

Alonso’s success – Leverkusen was in the relegation zone when he took over in October 2022 – has boosted his appeal at Bayern and Liverpool, who are both in need of a new coach next season, and Madrid, which is no hurry to replace Carlo Ancelotti but knows the day will come.

Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro is already prepared for Alonso’s departure. “We’re happy that he’s here, but Xabi Alonso is a puzzle piece. It’s not like everything will fall apart when he’s not here,” Carro said in an interview with online broadcaster DAZN. “We have a top squad, we have a coaching staff, (sporting director) Simon Rolfes… Therefore, most of the people who are responsible for the success are here, independently of Xabi Alonso.”

Alonso has said he won’t let the speculation over his future distract him. It would also be no surprise if he stayed at Leverkusen – he turned Borussia Mönchengladbach down when he was still at Sociedad because he felt he wasn’t ready for the move.

Leverkusen has the best defense in the Bundesliga with just 16 goals conceded in 25 games, while only Bayern has scored more – thanks in part to the remarkable Harry Kane who is closing in on Robert Lewandowski’s scoring record.

But Alonso’s reluctance to talk about potentially winning the Bundesliga title is merited as Leverkusen has endured a number of painful near misses, finishing runner-up in 2011, 2002, 2000, 1999 and 1997. Leverkusen also lost German Cup and Champions League finals in 2002. Only the club’s older fans remember the German Cup win in 1993, or the UEFA Cup victory in 1998.

Granit Xhaka has played a big part in the team’s success since arriving from Arsenal last summer, but the Swiss midfielder also knows what it’s like to let victory slip after Manchester City overhauled the Gunners to win the Premier League title last year.

“I really hope it doesn’t happen again,” Xhaka said after the win over Wolfsburg. “We still have nine games, nothing is won yet. We have to keep working as we’re doing now, working hard, and we know that the coming weeks are so important.”

Leverkusen, which is also through to the German Cup semifinals, hosts Qarabağ on Thursday for the second leg of their Europa League last-16 tie before visiting Freiburg in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

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