Frankfurt: Overlooked amid the current euphoria in the Champions League, Bayer Leverkusen has emerged as Bayern Munich's closest challenger in the Bundesliga.
The club that has never captured the championship has won its last four in the league to climb to second place, eight points behind Bayern. Leverkusen next visits Hannover on Sunday.
Two-time defending champion Borussia Dortmund is 11 points behind and Schalke is 13 behind. With Dortmund and Schalke both progressing in the Champions League, along with Bayern, Leverkusen has the relatively minor distraction of the Europa League.
Leverkusen has also won six of its last seven and is one of only two teams to have beaten Bayern this season, and the only one to do it in Munich.
It is also an anomaly in the Bundesliga, because it has two coaches — former star Sami Hyypia and Sascha Lewandowski.
"We are pleased with second place. But we haven't won anything," Hyppia told Kicker magazine. "It's a very long road ahead of us. We have to develop in many aspects, including the mental area. But we've already won games that normally we would have lost in the past."
Hyypia said Leverkusen players were developing a winner's mentality, "and that was our most important job."
Understandably, since Leverkusen has finished second five times in 15 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.
"Our goal is to produce constant performances and to have the right attitude every time. To defend well is a good basis for success," said Hyypia, himself a former Finland and Liverpool defender.
Bayern and Dortmund played to a 1-1 draw last weekend in a highly anticipated showdown in Munich that left the two sides 11 points apart. Dortmund trailed Bayern by the same margin last season but few expect another run of 15 wins and two draws after the winter break that secured Dortmund's second consecutive title.
Bayern travels to struggling Augsburg on Saturday, while Dortmund hosts Wolfsburg.
Schalke has fallen from second place after losing three of its last four. It has a tough trip to rising Stuttgart.
Hamburger SV kicks off the 16th round on Friday against Hoffenheim, which fired coach Markus Babbel on Monday. Interim coach Frank Kramer will guide the team in Hamburg.
Also Saturday, Nuremberg hosts Fortuna Duesseldorf, Greuther Fuerth visits Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt plays Werder Bremen. Borussia Moenchengladbach hosts Mainz on Sunday.