From the relegation zone to the top of the standings. Not a bad first year in charge for Xabi Alonso at Bayer Leverkusen.
Alonso marked his first anniversary at the German club on Thursday and has a game against local rival Cologne on Sunday, another test of Leverkusen’s credentials to challenge Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title.
“That milestone means something to me,” Alonso said Wednesday. “A lot has happened in that time, mostly positive. The record is good and both the team and our game have continued to develop.”
A World Cup and Champions League winner as a player, Alonso had never coached a club’s first team until he was appointed at Leverkusen on October 5, 2022. At the time, Leverkusen had slumped to 17th in the 18-team league under predecessor Gerardo Seoane.
One year later, Leverkusen is in first place after climbing to the top of the standings last week with a 3-0 win over Mainz as Bayern dropped points in a 2-2 draw with Leipzig. Alonso also won praise for reaching the Europa League semifinal last season before a narrow loss to Jose Mourinho-coached Roma.
A squad of young, ambitious players have been key to Leverkusen’s rise, with Alonso getting the most out of the likes of German playmaker Florian Wirtz and speedy Dutch right back Jeremie Frimpong, who signed a new contract through 2028 on Tuesday. Victor Boniface has scored eight goals in eight games since the Nigerian striker signed from Union Saint-Gilloise in July.
Alonso marked his anniversary in Leverkusen in the unfamiliar surroundings of Molde, a town of 20,000 people in Norway where the team was playing a Europa League game.
Sunday’s game at home to Cologne — called the Rhine derby because of the river running between Leverkusen and Cologne — looks deceptively easy in the standings but could prove anything but. Cologne has only one point from its opening six games but has saved its best performances for its biggest opponents, including a 1-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund on an 88th-minute goal in its first game of the season.
A win over Cologne played a key role in getting Alonso established in Leverkusen a year ago, too. He had only one win from his first seven games in all competitions but turned it around by hammering then-league leader Union Berlin 5-0 and following up with a 2-1 win over Cologne.
Alonso’s record over the last year has fuelled speculation he could be a contender to take over at his old club Real Madrid when Carlo Ancelotti’s contract runs out at the end of the season. Alonso signed a contract extension at Leverkusen to 2026 in August in a sign he’s sticking around, for now at least.
“It’s too early” to talk about future steps, Alonso said last week when asked about Madrid.
Also this weekend in Germany, Bayern hosts Freiburg on Sunday looking for a return to dominant form after the draw with Leipzig last week and a hard-fought 2-1 win over Copenhagen in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Dortmund takes on Union Berlin on Saturday. Neither team has been impressive so far this season, but Union is in deeper trouble after its 3-2 loss to Braga on an added-time goal Tuesday extended its losing run to six games in all competitions. Leipzig is coming off a 3-1 to loss to European champion Manchester City as it readies to host Bochum on Saturday.