Morocco's Amine Adli bringing flair and goals to Bayer Leverkusen's special season

Runaway Bundesliga leaders could clinch the title this weekend as their unbeaten season goes on

Bayer Leverkusen's Moroccan winger Amine Adli has enjoyed an excellent individual season. AFP
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Of one thing we can be almost certain. When Bayer Leverkusen, the magnificent upstarts of this club football season, celebrate their Bundesliga title, there will be a special dance involving Amine Adli and Jeremie Frimpong, two of the more expressive stars of the German club’s dazzling campaign.

Adli, the Morocco winger, and Frimpong, the Dutch full-back, are chief animators of Leverkusen’s flourishing flanks. They are also standout post-goal entertainers and have plenty of opportunity to try out fresh routines. At Leverkusen, the goals keep coming. There’s every prospect the trophies will too in the next month or so.

First up, there’s the German league title, held since 2013 by Bayern Munich but about to be hijacked by a club whose financial resources are dwarfed by Bayern’s and whose reputation, up until now, had been of frailty whenever they have been in sight of the finishing line.

Twice in their history Leverkusen have fluffed the chance of winning the Bundesliga on the season’s last day. Hence the nickname ‘Neverkusen’, one that stuck most stubbornly when, 22 years ago, they stumbled from the top of a table they had led through the spring only in the last two matchdays, ahead of finishing with a silver medal in the same season’s Champions League final and the German Cup, all in the space of a fortnight.

If not Neverkusen, they were simply dubbed ‘Vizekusen’ – ‘Runner-up-kusen’ – derided as perennial chasers, a club without the steel or stamina to see a job through.

Yet, under the transformative coaching of Xabi Alonso, who accepted his first senior managerial post in October 2022 with Leverkusen in the bottom half of Germany’s top division, those defects have been stunningly put in the past. Stamina? They have plenty. Look only at the habit of late goals that kept up the momentum of a campaign which has Leverkusen way ahead of Bayern and everybody else in the Bundesliga and into the second week of April unbeaten across all competitions.

There were two more late strikes against West Ham United on Thursday - in the 83rd minute from Jonas Hoffman and Victor Boniface’s 91st-minute header - to give Leverkusen a 2-0 advantage ahead of the second leg of their Europa League quarter-final. In the previous round, striker Patrick Schik scored three goals in stoppage time across the two legs against Qarabag, his brace in the home game enough to turn a 4-3 aggregate deficit into a 5-4 victory.

With Liverpool losing 3-0 at home to Atalanta on Thursday Leverkusen now find themselves installed as favourites to win the Europa League. It may well be part of a treble. Leverkusen’s 16-point lead in the Bundesliga is likely to be cashed in for a formal title presentation this weekend, with five matchdays still to spare, and they are in the final of German Cup next month.

Against West Ham, Adli had another impressive night, combining his nimble, swift work on the wing with a playmaker’s instinct. Opponents recognise his influence, hence the crude challenge on him from West Ham’s Lucas Paqueta that incensed the staff and substitutes on Leverkusen’s bench and led to Paqueta’s yellow card and consequent suspension from next Thursday’s London leg.

Adli, 23, and a dual national who chose a senior international career with the Atlas Lions after representing his native France at under-21 level, is “in a good moment”, said Alonso, pinpointing “his energy, his quality and his runs from deep”.

He leads Leverkusen’s statistics for assists-per-minute and his complicity with Florian Wirtz, the precocious attacking midfielder, has been a feature of some of their most fluent performances. The second of Leverkusen’s four goals in the 4-0 dismantling of Fortuna Dusseldorf in the German Cup semi-final earlier this month – with Adli brilliantly finishing a move that began, three passes earlier, with Alex Grimaldo just inside the Leverkusen goalline – is already a key exhibit for how smoothly Xabi Alonso has engineered his team’s quick transitions.

For Adli, top scorer in the cup run with five goals in as many games, it has been a coming-of-age campaign. His responsibilities grew when Moussa Diaby was sold to Aston Villa last summer, but there was also some catch-up needed because Adli missed the opening three games of the league season through a suspension carrying over from the previous season.

He made his senior international debut for Morocco in September and while preparing for the Africa Cup of Nations in early January suffered the loss of his mother.

Afcon kept him away as Leverkusen’s consolidated their leadership of the league in January, the only month they have dropped points in 2024, but he returned for the statement 3-0 win over Bayern, following up by scoring one goal and setting up the other in the 2-1 win over Heidenheim.

“Amine Adli is fundamentally important to us,” said Alonso. “He’s a big influence on the way we play and he’s aggressive, links up our attacking moves and is brilliant with the final pass. A top player with an excellent mentality.”

And he’s currently winning the sprint, in which several of his international teammates are engaged, for Moroccan gold medals in leading domestic leagues.

Leverkusen, who play Werder Bremen on Sunday, will clinch the Bundesliga Shield if they win, and could be confirmed as champions before then if second-placed Bayern and third-placed Stuttgart lose on Saturday.

On course for a third successive French Ligue 1 title is Paris Saint-Germain and Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi, while Brahim Diaz, who committed his future to the Atlas Lions last month, should collect his second La Liga gold medal with Real Madrid next month.

Goalkeeper Yassine Bounou can meanwhile regard adding a Saudi Pro League title to the Super Cup he won on Thursday with Al Hilal as almost a formality. Hakim Ziyech, Morocco’s captain, has returned to fitness in time for Galatasaray’s ongoing jostle with Fenerbahce for the Turkish title.

But none of those would have quite the historic, rarity value of Leverkusen winning a treble – the landmark looming ever larger in Adli’s sights.

Updated: April 12, 2024, 2:20 PM