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Bayern Munich's Bundesliga reign has finally met its match: Leverkusen

In Germany, for decades, they've been known as Neverkusen, a team defined by "nearly," a club resigned to "not quite." They were not supposed to lead the uprising. As Bayern Munich reigned, strengthening its grip on the Bundesliga, winning nine, 10, 11 straight titles, they, Bayer Leverkusen, were distant, absent. They watched from afar as Bayern stumbled; but whenever the door crept ajar, they were nowhere to be found.

Until 2023-24. Until now.

Leverkusen beat Bayern 3-0 at the BayArena on Saturday. But they did not stun the perennial champs. This was not an upset. It was everything Leverkusen has built toward under head coach Xabi Alonso. And it was the firmest expression yet of a statement that will startle and stir all of European soccer.

Bayern Munich's reign has, finally, met its match.

Saturday's win took Leverkusen five points clear at the top of the Bundesliga. The proverbial door is open. The crack is perhaps wider than ever. But not because Bayern has faltered. The champs entered Saturday's match on pace for 85 points, their fourth-best tally ever. The door is only ajar because Leverkusen has forcibly opened it.

Alonso and undervalued players have opened it with flowing, shape-shifting football. They have not lost in 31 games this season, across three different competitions, in part because they are difficult to define. They pass and move like Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. They defend and counter like Jose Mourinho's 2012 Real Madrid. They can lull opponents to sleep in possession, unbalancing them with the ball, stringing together patient attacks that delight purists. Or they can stifle opponents and blitz them.

They did the latter on Saturday. Florian Wirtz, a reborn wunderkind, exploded through midfield in the 18th minute, and nearly set up a Leverkusen opener. Bayern's Dayot Upamecano scraped away a dangerous rebound. But Leverkusen took the ensuing throw-in quickly, and caught the champions off guard.

Sacha Boey, Bayern's latest solution to an injury crisis at fullback, fell asleep at the far post.

Josip Stanišić, a fullback deemed surplus by Bayern and loaned out to Leverkusen, snuck behind Boey and put the hosts ahead.

They had less of the ball but more of the chances throughout 90 minutes. They had eight shots on goal to Bayern's one, and 1.5 Expected Goals (xG) to Bayern's 0.6. They never once looked like they'd lose a game that their club, throughout its history, had almost never won.

They doubled their lead five minutes after halftime.

They punctuated it, and sealed a famous win, in stoppage time.

And they partied. They are wholly unencumbered by failures of the past. They are nothing more, nothing less than a brilliant soccer team.

Wirtz and others weren't even alive when the Neverkusen tag began to stick. It truly took hold around the turn of the century, as Leverkusen settled for four second-place finishes in a span of six Bundesliga seasons. In 2000, the club's best-ever team reached the Champions League final and DFB Pokal final — but lost both.

So they became Vizekusen — runner-up-kusen. They haven't won a trophy of any kind since. And they've never won the Bundesliga.

Their overlord, on the other hand, Bayern Munich, had won 11 consecutive titles. In some of those 11 seasons, Bayern lagged but nobody capitalized. In others, the so-called Rekordmeister ran away from the pack. And this, 2023-24, oh so easily could have been the latter. Bayern, despite injuries and constant pessimistic chatter, took 50 points from its first 20 games, the sixth-best pace in league history.

But Leverkusen has been even better. The driver's seat in this very real title race is now theirs.

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