Despite being unbeaten in their four games played, Manchester United are not at all assured of a place in the Champions League’s last 16 just yet. Their next opponents, second-placed Bayer Leverkusen, are just a single point behind them, while Shakhtar Donetsk are three points further back in third.
A win away to the German side is an absolute must, then, otherwise David Moyes risks mounting even more pressure on his shoulders, especially off the back of a disappointing 2-2 draw away to Cardiff City at the weekend in a game that saw the Red Devils bin two points at the death.
But winning at the BayArena is anything but a foregone conclusion. Sami Hyypia’s side is very formidable at home. Leverkusen boast the Bundesliga’s second-best home record, winning six of their seven games, scoring an impressive 20 goals and conceding nine. In the Champions League, both of their wins came at home, where they scored six goals in total – the most in the group – and conceded only one.
United, meanwhile, despite having the Premier League’s joint second-best away record, winning half of their six games, are far from convincing on the road. They’ve conceded 10 goals already on their travels in the league – an amazing two thirds of their overall total – and despite letting in only one in the Champions League, they are yet to register a win away from Old Trafford in the competition, drawing both games and scoring just one goal. In fact, Shakhtar is the only team in the group to win away. Only two other groups in the competition – Groups B and H – have only one team on record out of four winning away from home.
United, given their stature, need to right that wrong. But in order to return home with the three points and a certain place in the last 16, Moyes must do what he has struggled to do thus far this season – get his tactics right. To do this, it’s important for him to know what threats to look out for from high-flying Leverkusen.
Striker Stefan Kiesling, who has two goals in his four appearances in the competition and eight in 13 in the Bundesliga, is an obvious one. Midfielder Simon Rolfes, who scored a nice long range effort in the reverse fixture and is the club’s leading scorer in the competition with three goals, is another. Attacking midfielder Sidney Sam would’ve surely caused his fair share of ruckus, but he misses this game through injury. And then there’s Heung-Min Son.
The 21-year-old South Korean international is yet to score in the competition, but has created the most chances for his team (8), grabbing two assists, which is also a club-high. One of those assists came at Old Trafford; it was his lay-off that set up Simon Rolfes for his long range strike.
Bought to fill the position Andre Schurrle left when he departed for Chelsea in the summer, Son isn’t exactly a like-for-like replacement for the German, but what they do have in common is the fact that they are both pacey, tricky counter-attacking threats. This bodes well with Leverkusen’s style, as they are deadly on the counter. In fact, they’ve scored the most goals (5) from those situations in the Bundesliga so far and only Barcelona have scored more in Europe. This is why United’s right-back, central defenders, and right midfielder will have to keep a close eye on Son as he starts on the left flank.
He has attempted an average of three take ons per game in the competition so far, showing just how much of a handful he can be when in possession. What’s more, he is averaging one shot per game. Being right-footed, he likes cutting inside from the left flank onto his stronger foot after getting past his man and having a go at goal. Looking at the placement of his shots below, giving him space to fire could prove costly for United.
They also have to be alert to his crossing. He has completed one of the three (33.3%) he has attempted in the competition thus far. Kiessling is more than capable in the air, scoring five headed goals this season in all competitions, so United’s defenders should endeavour to cut off his avenues of service, one of them being the South Korean.
It’s difficult to predict where the three points will go here, but if United are to get them, they must deal well with Leverkusen’s deadly counter-attacks. If they don’t, they’ll risk getting “Son burnt.”Published 27 Nov 2013, 01:10 IST