Bayer Leverkusen came into the 2013-14 season with the lofty goal of challenging for the title. While that has all but gone by the wayside, Die Werkself still have a fairly firm control on second place in the league. Their big "must" at the beginning of the year was to qualify, once again, for next season's Champions League. They're well on their way.
What Went Right
Against the other teams in the top ten at the winter break, Leverkusen went 7-1-1. The lone loss was in the fourth game of the season to Schalke. The draw was a 1-1 contest with Bayern Munich. The wins are over Borussia Mönchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Hertha Berlin, Augsburg, Mainz, and Stuttgart. Whoa. That's an impressive run only bested by Bayern.
When Leverkusen dropped a club record €10 million on Heung Min Son over the summer, there was questioning what the club's plans were with Sidney Sam and Stefan Kießling already on the roster. Surely, Son wouldn't beat out any of those players for a starting spot. Sami Hyypiä showed the ability to adjust and switched the club to a 4-3-3 this season which allowed him to get all three players on the field at the same time. The 21 year old South Korean has 7 goals and 2 assists in 14 appearances. He's getting the job done. They aren't really missing Andre Schürrle at all.
It was going to be tough for Leverkusen to improve on their second league best defensive record from last season, but they sought to do just that over the summer. The signings of Emir Spahić and Emre Can were inspired and done to improve the defense. While Can's flexibility as a midfielder also allows him to play in the defense, Spahić has been an excellent as he has given Hyypiä another elite centerback to rotate as a starter with Philipp Wollscheid and Ömer Toprak. They're still second in the league defensively behind Bayern Munich, but they've only allowed 16 goals through the first 17 matches. If they keep up that pace, they'll be right on track to qualify for the Champions League again next season.
The first half was excellent for Sidney Sam. After the first 17 games, he has 7 goals and 5 assists to his name. Combine that with Stefan Kießling's 9 goals and Heung Min Son's 7 goals, and you have quite the fearsome trio. Unfortunately for Leverkusen, not everything about Sidney Sam is "right".
What Went Wrong
Robbie Kruse tears ACL
Leverkusen's hopes of challenging for all three trophies surely took a hit when it was announced that Robbie Kruse would miss the remainder of the season after tearing his ACL in training. While the club should be able to cope with his loss due to the other talent on the squad, this is a devastating injury to Kruse especially with the World Cup coming up this summer.
While they had their fair share of big wins in the first half of the season, Leverkusen worked to balance them out with a few bad losses. Schalke started the season miserably, but they shutout Leverkusen in the fourth game of the year. Then, in the beginning of November they lost away to Eintracht Braunschweig. That's bottom of the table with 11 points after 17 matches Braunschweig. They weren't satisfied with this poor loss, but they ended the season with losses to 15th place Eintracht Frankfurt and 11th place Werder Bremen to end the first half of the season. They must work on not playing down to their opposition in the second half of the season if they want to keep up their current trajectory of finishing in second place.
Fear of the European Elite
Leverkusen had a great opportunity to put a stamp on their Champions League group and prove to the rest of Europe that they were to be taken seriously. In a group of Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Real Sociedad, the club should've look at this as a winnable group. In the four matches against Shakhtar and Sociedad, Leverkusen picked up three wins and a draw and outscored them 7-1. What happened in the two matches against an average Manchester United? Fear. Embarrassment. They lost both matches conceding five and four goals in them. As we've seen from their performance against Europe's best team, Bayern Munich, Leverkusen can and should be competitive with the "elite" group of European clubs. They drew Paris Saint-Germain in the knockout stage, so they have a legitimate shot at advancing to the quarterfinals. Hopefully, they'll show up without fear and put on a good showing
Leverkusen and Schalke announced that Sam would be joining Die Königsblauen in the summer after his buyout clause, believed to be only €2.5 million, was met. Losing Sam will be a tough blow for Leverkusen, and we'll have to see if the transfer affects Sam in any way. With the club likely to find themselves in the Champions League again next season, it will be interesting to see who the club signs to replace Sam. One option would be Hoffenheim's Roberto Firmino. The 22 year old has eight goals so far this season and would be a nice addition to Leverkusen.
Second Half Outlook
At this point, it's easy to say that Bayer Leverkusen will finish in one of the top four Champions League places. Six teams are separated by nine points at the break, so anything is possible. However, the likelihood is that they'll finish in one of the top three places for an automatic bid to next season's competitions.