Lessons learned on the Rhine
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When Jupp Heynckes starts to taunt his old pals at Bayern Munich, then you know the experienced tactician must have good reason to be confident. According to the Leverkusen coach, Louis van Gaal's star ensemble have struggled to keep pace with his charges at the top of the Bundesliga table. Indeed, the former Real Madrid boss appears to have finally instilled the winning mentality he fostered during two successful spells at the Munich giants into a side previously ridiculed as 'Loserkusen'.

Bayer have finished runners-up in the league four times in their history, not to mention the UEFA Champions League and German Cup final defeats of 2002. Nonetheless, the Werkself go into the Christmas break as the only club in Germany's top tier yet to lose a match this season and sit top of the pile having conceded just 13 goals - fewer than any other team. The young Bayer squad's excellent performances under Heynckes have led many to believe that the club have become more than a side merely capable of entertaining the crowds, and have sufficient quality and grit to mount a serious title challenge.

A team with real character
"My team has shown that they want to compete at the top and that they have the quality to do so," said Heynckes following last weekend's 3-2 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach.

Heynckes' fledglings' superb run looked to be coming to an end after they went 2-1 down at the BayArena, but that was when the new mentality under Heynckes really became apparent: "Games like that show the true character of a team. They had to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to secure the three points."

The difference between 'Loserkusen' and Leverkusen - the 'then' and the 'now' - is easily visible in their form throughout the first half of the season. Nine wins and eight draws from 17 games have seen Bayer charge into first place in the standings - ahead of the likes of Schalke and Bayern.

Though some might argue that they have drawn too many matches, the fact remains that Bayer are unbeaten in the league this season. The 'young and wild ones', as they were christened by the German press, finally appear to have learned to curb their gung-ho style and hang on for a draw when necessary.

Taming the beast
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com a few months ago, Heynckes stressed the importance of "trusting the lads to do their jobs. If you make sure you talk things through with them individually then they'll fight tooth and nail for you."

It seems the club has found the ideal coach to put their philosophy of polishing rough diamonds into practice: "It's my job to show them the way. It's simply a case of helping these young lads grow up."

As well as Heynckes, another old head has added stability to the ranks at Bayer Leverkusen. "The calmness and composure that Sami Hyypia radiates at the back is a huge help to the team," said Toni Kroos on the 36-year-old former Liverpool stopper, after himself notching two goals in Saturday's win over Gladbach.

For an emerging talent like Kroos, who was awarded the adidas Golden Ball for his performances at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2007 in Korea and joined Leverkusen on loan from Bayern Munich last season, the Finnish centre-back serves as the perfect role model.

Young starlets
Whether Leverkusen are indeed capable of winning the Bundesliga title this season will of course only become clear next May. However, you can be sure that a number of the club's latest crop of young talents will be pulling on their national teams' shirts at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ next summer.

24-year-old keeper Rene Adler has every chance of following in the footsteps of Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann as Germany's No1, while Simon Rolfes, three years Adler's senior, looks set to be Torsten Frings' long-term replacement in defensive midfield. Twenty-five-year-old striker Stefan Kiessling's 12 goals in the Bundesliga this season should also ensure he is not overlooked by Germany coach Joachim Low for the finals.

It will also be interesting to see whether 19-year-old Kroos returns to parent club Bayern Munich next season as a German champion with Leverkusen, or even as a FIFA World Cup participant with Germany. Kroos has appeared in all 17 of Leverkusen's matches in the first half of the season, scoring six goals and setting up a further four, so the young playmaker is certainly on track for a big year in 2010.

Whatever happens at the BayArena, one thing is for certain: it will be well worth keeping an eye on proceedings at Bayer Leverkusen over the next few months.