Despite never having won the Bundesliga, Bayer Leverkusen are consistently near the top of the table come season's end. Five times they have finished as runners-up, most recently in the 2010-11 season. In 2002, a season known as "Treble Horror," saw the Werkself surrender a five-point lead with three matches to go by losing two of the matches. The DFB-Pokal final was a 4-2 loss to Schalke 04, and Bayer lost the 2002 Champions League Final 2-1 to Real Madrid in Glasgow.
Stuck behind FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, Leverkusen don't have the financial muscle to go punch for punch with teams at the top. Essentially, they have a glass ceiling of third, but they still need to do well to finish in that position. Third place also means automatic Champions League qualification, whereas fourth means a playoff. Competition will come from Schalke 04, Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach. Their rivals, FC Köln, have been promoted from the 2. Bundesliga, bringing an extra layer of fun to the season.
Just a year ago, Bayer Leverkusen looked like one of the most exciting teams on the continent. A young team, managed by former player Sami Hyypiä, who looked to be another promising young manager rising up in the Bundesliga. By Christmastime they sat comfortably in second place with 37 points and a five-point gap over third. However, after the annual Winterpause, Leverkusen struggled mightily, picking up just 24 more points in the second half of the season. By the time it was all said and done, they had slipped to fourth place and Hyypiä had been fired.
Now under the leadership of Roger Schmidt, who led Red Bull Salzburg to the Austrian Bundesliga title with 110 goals scored and just 35 conceded, Leverkusen will try to finish in the top three. Avoiding embarrassment in European competition should also be a focus for Bayer this season, particularly after losing 9-2 on aggregate to David Moyes' Manchester United last season, then being knocked out 6-1 by Paris St. Germain.
As is par for the course, Leverkusen did a fair bit of buying and selling this summer. Brought in from Hamburg for €14m, Hakan Calhanoglu, the 20-year-old Turkish attacking midfielder, scored 11 goals last season. From relegated Nürnberg, 17-goal striker Josip Drmic joined for €6.8m. The 22-year-old Switzerland international will be a great option in rotation with the aging but still prolific Stefan Kießling. Schalke 04 center back Kyriakos Papadopoulos will be spending the season on loan at Leverkusen, in hopes of more playing time after a couple injury-plagued seasons. If he can stay healthy, he will be a big upgrade on the aging Emir Spahić.
Looking toward the future, Leverkusen purchased a couple of young defenders. The club paid €6.5m for Wendell, a 21-year-old left back from Gremio in Brazil. Wendell may be able to unseat Sebastian Boenisch, the incumbent left back. Croatian center back Tin Jedvaj was brought in on a two-year loan from AS Roma. The 18-year-old should provide depth while finding some valuable playing time.
Obviously when you aren't a huge club with unlimited resources, doing some buying means you will be doing some selling as well. Losing Emre Can to Liverpool hurts. The 20-year-old central midfielder made 29 league appearances last season, chipping in with three goals and three assists. However, receiving €12m for the player went a long way toward filling holes in other areas of the squad.
Left winger Junior Fernandes went back to Dinamo Zagareb after spending last season there on loan, and Jens Hegeler moved to Hertha Berlin. Attacking midfielder Sidney Sam joined Schalke 04, looking for more playing time. Leverkusen might not have made much on these transfers, but they have loads of midfield depth and weren't likely to use them much anyway.
Transfer business still to come
Bayer are probably done making moves this window, but another in or out isn't totally out of the question. Lars Bender has been the subject of transfer speculation for years, but with Can already gone, he probably won't leave this window. Backup central defender Philipp Wollscheid is rumored to be available at the right price, though, and a handful of English teams are believed to be interested.
How far can this team go in the UCL without compromising the league finish? - In the second tier of Bundesliga teams behind Bayern and Dortmund, Leverkusen are battling Schalke, Wolfsburg, and Gladbach for next best. They have bolstered the squad with quality players, but with continental competition to deal with, the squad might not be deep enough to ensure a good standard of football is being played on multiple fronts. Plus, Leverkusen still need to qualify for the group stages of Champions League. They did win the first leg of their playoff, 3-2, in Copenhagen, which should help.
Will Roger Schmidt continue to play free scoring attacking football? - Schmidt's Red Bull Salzburg side won the Austrian Bundesliga by 18 points last year. Having a goal difference of +75 didn't hurt, but in a tougher league will the tactics hold up when they won't be favored in every match? Young players will always be crucial to Leverkusen's success, and fresh faces like Calhanoglu and Drmic will boost the attack, but if the goals don't start flowing in, can Bayer be successful?
Stefan Kießling: Just 15 goals and five assists last season represents a subpar year for the 30-year-old striker. His tally of 25 goals and 10 assists in 34 matches during the 2012-13 season was incredible, however, and if he can rediscover that form, he should keep his place in attack. Hit a duck, and his playing time could fall to new arrival Drmic. His ability to score is also reliant on others creating the chances, since Kießling is definitely not a complete forward. Son Heung-Min, Gonzalo Castro and Hakan Calhanoglu form an excellent attacking trio behind him, however. In fact, Kießling scored four in the first 40 minutes of Leverkusen's first DFB-Pokal match, finishing with five total, and opened the scoring in the Champions League qualifying win over FC København.
Lars Bender: The older of the Bender twins (his brother Sven plays for Borussia Dortmund) 25-year-old Lars is a complete central midfielder who can run for days. Injury forced him to withdraw from Germany's World Cup squad, but Leverkusen will be hoping that just leaves Bender well-rested for their multiple campaigns.
Ömer Toprak: A 25-year-old central defender just starting to come into his own, Toprak is a solid all-around, consistent performer. In 119 Bundesliga appearances, he has just two goals, but has been sent off only twice. The arrival of Papadopoulos should help him in central defense, and having Bernd Leno in goal will be a great strength for Bayer.
Projected ideal starting XI
Key reserves: FW Josip Drmic, DF Tin Jedvaj, DF Wendell, MF Levin Öztunali
With Can gone, Bayer will play some slightly more attacking football through the midfield, and Calhanoglu will be at the center of that. Keep an eye on Öztunali though -- he's just 18 and a rising star in the Bundesliga. Drnic should also get plenty of time up top, especially if Kießling hits a rough patch.
Unless Schmidt can get the goals flowing early and often, Leverkusen have no realistic chance to win the league or even finish second. Schalke will provide a good challenge for third place, but another fourth-place finish would be unsurprising. Frankly there isn't enough squad depth to overcome a major injury, should one occur. League: 4th
Bayer most likely will not top their group in Champions League, meaning they will be drawn against a group winner in the Round of 16. Most likely, that means an early exit from the competition. Champions League: Round of 16.