Aspirin-backed Leverkusen has a perpetual headache

Aspirin-backed Leverkusen has a perpetual headache

Published Feb. 12, 2012 5:34 p.m. ET

When Michael Ballack described Bayer Leverkusen as a ''land of milk and honey for the players,'' he was highlighting what he sees as an inner malaise at his club.

Despite boasting excellent facilities and the backing of one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, Leverkusen is the perpetual runner-up.

Last year the German club finished second in the Bundesliga for the fifth time in 14 seasons, during which it also lost a Champions League final and two German Cup finals.

It has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with Leverkusen going so far as to patent the word ''Vizekusen'' (Vice-kusen) in March 2010 so it cannot be abused anymore by rival fans.


In 107 years, Leverkusen's only successes have been winning the Uefa Cup in 1988 and the German Cup in 1993.

Ballack said a lack of ambition was to blame for Leverkusen's consistent failures at the last hurdle.

On Tuesday in the Champions League, its ambition will be fully tested against Barcelona, the defending Spanish league, European and world champions.

Ballack made his criticisms in November and the subsequent deterioration of his relationship with the club has contributed to another season of underachievement.

''It's great for everyone to play here, but you have to know that you have to deliver and win,'' said Ballack, who suggested that players were mollycoddled to the extent that they no longer had the same desire to win.

Ballack has been ruled out of Tuesday's game after tearing a calf muscle in training on Sunday, but it was uncertain whether he would have featured even if fit.

The 35-year-old has been an unused substitute for Leverkusen's last three league games, while his agent has been threatened with a ban from the stadium after claiming his client was being made ''a scapegoat'' to mask problems within the club.

Whether it is true or not, it's clear that there are problems at the club, which was founded in 1904 when pharma giant Bayer formed a sports club for its factory workers.

Even second place is out of reach for the ''Werkself'' (Factory 11), currently sixth in the Bundesliga, with coach Robin Dutt coming under increasing pressure in his first season following a series of underwhelming performances.

''We were a long way from perfection in the first half of the season. In the first two games back (after the winter break) there was also room for improvement,'' Dutt acknowledged before Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Borussia Dortmund.

The 47-year-old Dutt hasn't been helped by a series of unfortunate injuries to key players, winger Sidney Sam and striker Eren Derdiyok both ruled out with foot injuries in the last week, the latter after stepping on broken glass in his bathroom.

But Dutt is responsible for some of his own misfortune, starting the season by saying Ballack and club captain Simon Rolfes would never play together, only to backtrack and include them both.

Ballack's fine performances at the time even led to talk of his contract being extended beyond the end of this season - before any such notions were swiftly quashed as the relationship between the sides unraveled.

''The contract probably won't be renewed,'' Leverkusen managing director Wolfgang Holzhaeuser said this month. ''He still has three months left. We will conduct that professionally.''

Meanwhile, the Ballack affair has even brought out divisions among club management, with sporting director Rudi Voeller criticizing Holzhaeuser for saying the 35-year-old's transfer back to the club had been a ''failure.''

''It's two, three months too early to take stock now already,'' Voeller snapped.

Voeller is still hopeful that Ballack will yet play a part in taking Leverkusen further than it has ever been since the then 25-year-old Ballack led the side to the 2002 Champions League final in his first stint at the club.

With a place in the Champions League quarterfinals beckoning, it's the perfect time for Leverkusen to display its ambition.