Bayer Leverkusen will be looking to go one step further than they did at the same stage in the Champions League two years ago. The Bundesliga club will face Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night as they seek revenge after missing out on a place in the quarter-finals.
That tie two years ago may not have been the most pleasing on the eye, but this time round, it’s a lot more promising. Both legs resulted in a 1-0 win, whilst it was Stefan Kießling’s missed penalty that sent Atletico through in 2015.
Now the tides have turned. Leverkusen brought in Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez from Manchester United to add firepower, whilst Roger Schmidt has a plethora of youth to pick from. Yet to start in the Champions League, 17-year-old Kai Havertz is the pick of the bunch; he could be thrown in from the off after taking into consideration the four-month suspension of Hakan Calhanoglu for breach of contract in 2011.
The problem with Leverkusen’s performances this season? They’re like a box of assorted chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. That’s proven in their form in 2017. Throwing away a 2-0 lead against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Schmidt’s side then suffered a shock defeat against Hamburger SV. A loss that fans certainly didn’t see coming in Germany.
Luckily for Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen, they’ve exceeded expectations in the Champions League this season. Many journalists in the German media hadn’t predicted them to advance from their group stage, which included Tottenham Hotspur, CSKA Moscow and AS Monaco. Three goals against the French side in their final group saw them clinch a place in the Round of 16, ultimately resulting in a draw against Group D winners Atletico.
Exciting to watch, Leverkusen will no doubt take the game to Atletico with their high-pressure attacking play. This could, however, play into the hands of Simeone’s side. Leverkusen have been caught out in defence far too many times this season: Jonathan Tah has been inconsistent, whilst Ömer Toprak already has one eye on his move to Borussia Dortmund, with the player most likely to join in the summer with only an official announcement left to be made.
As they have done in the Bundesliga, Schmidt is likely to field his usual 4-4-2 formation, which will see Brandt and Chicharito lead the line, with Havertz and Karim Bellarabi behind them. Should Leverkusen go a goal down against Atletico, Schmidt will be adamant on sticking to his 4-4-2 formation – which is his downfall – and rarely having a plan B when they really need it, as shown in their defeats this season.
During their last meeting, Benjamin Henrichs, Brandt and Havertz were nowhere near the starting XI, but now, it’s a totally different story. With the addition of Hernandez, the quartet are Schmidt's most important players.
Struggling for consistency, Leverkusen are slowly putting together a good run of form coming into this tie on the back of two Bundesliga wins, which has risen the morale in the German city. Putting three goals against high-flying Eintracht Frankfurt was the start, before winning comfortably and scoring another three against Augsburg on Friday night – Bellarabi scored the Bundesliga’s 50,000th goal whilst Chicharito netted a brace.
Leverkusen haven’t tasted defeat at home in the Champions League since November 2014 (5W, 5D) and is a record that Schmidt will be hoping to keep intact.
Atletico Madrid released their squad for this last 16 fixture as Jan Oblak is back in the squad, but they will be without the experienced Diego Godin and Juanfran. Surely that’s music to Leverkusen’s ears, as the pace of Brandt and co. could cause Sime Vrsaljko and Filipe Luis plenty of problems on the night.
Lucas Hernandez is in the squad, despite a court hearing in a domestic violence case on the morning of this fixture. Simeone left Saul out of the Atletico squad that put four past Sporting Gijon on Saturday in hope that he will be fit enough to start on Tuesday evening.
It’s vital that Leverkusen keep it tight at the back on Tuesday evening. Heading to the Vicente Calderon for the return leg a goal down is every team’s worst nightmare – especially against an Atletico side who have conceded just one UCL goal at home this season.Published 20 Feb 2017, 13:55 IST