In May 2018, Stefan Kießling closed the curtain on a glistening career, after scoring 162 goals during his legendary 12 year spell at Bayer Leverkusen.
The former Germany international had a knack of identifying dangerous positions in and around the penalty area and had the clinical edge to ruthlessly punish the opposition. His career was built around scoring goals, and he retired as the second-highest goal scorer in Bayer Leverkusen’s history, behind club legend Ulf Kirsten.
Kießling was reluctant to waste energy by tirelessly chasing the ball and therefore preserved his energy for when Bayer Leverkusen broke on the attack. This potentially deteriorated his chances of representing Germany on a frequent basis.
He earned just six caps for his country and was unable to translate his prolific form at club level onto the international stage. Joachim Low prefers his attackers to counter-press the opposing defence, which was a demand that Kießling was unable to replicate. He was out of the frame when Germany were crowned World Cup champions in 2014, despite finishing winning the Bundesliga golden boot in 2012/13.
It was unfortunate that a forward as clinical as Kießling was overlooked by Low and that he was unable to feel the sensation of scoring for his country. But Low’s decision to leave out one of the most natural goal scorers in Germany was justified with their subsequent success.
Early Years: Nuremberg & Bundesliga Dreams
Born in the small Bavarian town of Lichtenfels, Kießling started playing competitive football at the age of just four. His hometown consisted of around 20,000 inhabitants, which could only fill two thirds of the Bay Arena, where Kießling would later attain god-like status.
At this point, his footballing future lied firmly in his local area, as he spent his teenage years playing for local side Eintracht Bamberg. It was only at 17 years of age when he was eventually identified by a professional football club.
Nuremberg were playing in the Bundesliga when Kießling arrived as a lanky teenager in 2001 but his debut campaign as a professional concluded with relegation. His teething problems grew more concerning during his following two seasons.
Fortunately, Nuremberg instantaneously regained their top-flight status but Kießling was finding it difficult to establish himself as a potent goal scorer. Five goals in 41 appearances over the course of three seasons was well below the standards expected from the supporters and they quickly began to lose patience and faith in their misfiring youngster.
He was approaching 22 years of age and the likelihood of him fulfilling his ambitions in the Bundesliga looked extremely slim. Nuremberg signed Russian striker Ivan Saenko from Karlsruher at the beginning of the 2005/06 campaign, but Kießling emerged from the shadows to prove his critics wrong.
The scoring rout began as he broke the deadlock in a draw against FC Schalke in September 2005. But he also scored winning goals against FC Koln and Hamburger SV respectively to play an influential role in guiding Nuremberg to an exceedingly impressive 8th place finish in the Bundesliga.
His 14 goals during the 2005/06 season attracted the interest of a host of clubs across Europe. Arsenal and Bayern Munich were the most notable interested parties, but his final destination wasn’t the Emirates Stadium and nor was it the Allianz Arena.
Bayer Leverkusen had masterfully attracted one of the most promising strikers in Germany and Kießling signed a four-year deal for a fee in the region of €6.5 million in the 2006 summer transfer window.
Big Move Questions his Capabilities
It was a major set-up from playing for a newly promoted Nuremberg to playing for the 2002 UEFA Champions League finalists Bayer Leverkusen. A barren run in front of goal could be accepted in Nuremberg, as long as he delivered magical moments throughout the season, but consistency was required to succeed at the Bay Arena.
Kießling was tasked with leading the attacking line with Ukrainian international Andriy Voronin playing just behind him as a second striker. Voronin was the more prolific forward during the 2006/07 season, although whilst Kießling would attain stardom, Voronin was heading into an unrecoverable state of decline during a forgettable spell with English outfit Liverpool.
Bayer Leverkusen endured a depressing season and failed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League. They’d gone from finalists to failing to qualify for the tournament in the space of five years and Kießling was showing very little sign that he was capable of improving their fortunes.
In the 2008 transfer window, Andrey Voronin joined Liverpool on a free transfer, defender Juan switched to Italian outfit AS Roma and forward Michal Papadopoulos was offloaded to Energie Cottbus on a season-long loan.
Manager Michael Skibbe acquired central defender Manuel Friedrich from FSV Mainz, Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal from Colo Colo and Greek forward Theofanis Gekas to boost the squad, following a number of potentially detrimental departures.
Despite attempting to overhaul the squad, Skibbe was relieved of his duties at the end of the 2007/08 season, after experiencing another depressing campaign. Bayer Leverkusen slumped into seventh place in the Bundesliga, although Kießling enjoyed a far more promising season from an individual perspective.
The season started in impressive fashion with Bayer Leverkusen winning four of their seven opening Bundesliga fixtures. They recovered their form on a number of occasions throughout the campaign, but that level of inconsistency cost them dearly and subsequently led to the dismissal of Skibbe.
Kießling failed to reach doubles figures in the Bundesliga, but his seven goals in Europe was crucial during their route to the UEFA Cup quarter-final. Newly appointed manager Bruno Labbadia failed to prevent their slump in the Bundesliga rankings during the 2008/09 season, but he was able to retain supporters’ interest by forging a gripping cup run in the DFB-Pokal.
It started in sceptical fashion, as Bayer narrowly defeated lower-league outfit Rot-Weiss Oberhausen in extra-time in the 1st Round. Kießling broke the deadlock to help guide them to victory over FC Augsburg in the 2nd Round and a convincing 3-1 victory over Energie Cottbus secured their passage into the quarter-final.
The most iconic moment of the 2008/09 season was Bayern Leverkusen’s incredible victory over German giants Bayern Munchen. They flew out of the traps to completely overwhelm Bayern and take a 3-0 victory inside 70 minutes, but Lucio and Miroslav Klose reduced the deficit with two goals in the space of just two minutes.
Die Werkself were holding on for dear life until Stefan Kießling decided the affair with a last-gasp goal to confirm Bayer’s place in the semi-final. They required extra-time in the next round, although they subsequently defeated FSV Mainz by a 4-1 score-line by full time.
Werder Bremen had finished runners-up in the Bundesliga in the previous season and continued their rise by reaching the final of the UEFA Cup. Bayer Leverkusen attempted to halt their revolutionary period but Mezut Ozil scored the solitary goal of the final at the Olympiastadion to deny Leverkusen silverware at the final hurdle once again.
The Pinnacle of his Powers