Youngsters lead Bayer Leverkusen's Champions League chase
After a disappointing start to its season Bayer Leverkusen has managed to go 14 games unbeaten across all competitions. Die Werkself entered the winter break fourth in the Bundesliga. Michael Schade's team is second among four clubs on 28 points. Only Borussia Dortmund betters its +11 goal difference. Leverkusen will need its few experienced players to make the Champions League quartet at season's end but its young players' good form has driven the challenge. Here are six youngsters who have made a distinctive contribution.
Leon Bailey (20)
Bailey signed for the club last January after spending time in Austria, Slovakia, and with Genk in Belgium. The young Jamaican has been Leverkusen's star. Featuring at left wing back, left wing, and right wing this season, he has donated eight goals and four assists to the cause. He is bursting with pace and well known for his dribbling and quick feet. His excellent left foot is used to good effect when passing, shooting, or taking free kicks. For the side to realise its Champions League dream, he'll have to remain on through spring.
Kai Havertz (18)
Havertz has made a huge impression this season. The tall Aachen-born teenager is extremely comfortable in the attacking midfield role. Very good in the air, he uses his tall frame well. Defenders can't assume he'll stumble with the ball at his feet, though. The youngster can take on defenders and pick out a pass. Often compared to Mesut Ozil, Havertz recently won the silver Fritz Walter award as second best German U17. A year on, he has already hit for a goal and assisted on five for the first team.
Julian Brandt (21)
Brandt appears to be another superstar in the making. He has been in sensational form so far this season . Five goals and two assists are already marked beside his name. Generally deployed as a left winger or attacking mid, the Bremen native is gifted with a great touch. Like most of Schade's young guns he can move with the ball and link up with teammates.
Brandt began his career at Wolfsburg but moved to Bayer in 2014. Last summer he was a member of the German squad that won the Confederations Cup. He has now represented die Mannschaft at every level.
Jonathan Tah (21)
Tah is regarded as one of the best young defenders in the game. Among other clubs, he has been strongly linked with Barcelona. The Catalans were looking for a young defender to replace Javier Mascherano before they signed Yerry Mina. Tah began his career at boyhood club Hamburg. He's already won three caps under Joachim Low in the national side.
Panagiotis Retsos (19)
The young Greek can play anywhere across the back four although he has looked most comfortable at centre back. He began his career at Olympiacos, only moving to the Bay Arena in the summer. Retsos is highly rated. Despite a slow start he is progressing well. The teenager was eligible to play for Bafana Bafana, South Africa being his the country of birth, but he has already been capped by Greece.
Benjamin Henrichs (20)
Henrichs can play either position on the right side of defence but is primarily utilised as a fullback. Born in Bocholt, he has come up through the Bayer youth system. Another who was in Jogi Low's Confederations Cup-winning squad last summer and a Fritz Walter gold medal winner as 2016's best U16, he has a bright future.
It remains to be seen whether this young Bayer team can reach the heights of the late 1980s and early noughties squads. The former won the UEFA Cup; the latter made a Champions League final. Supporters are eager to find out.
However, the vultures are already circling. Bigger clubs are interested in this wide array of talent. If Bayer is to seriously challenge domestically and in Europe it must protect its valuable young assets for as long as possible.