Expect Sami Hyypia's Leverkusen to Rise to the Challenge at Old Trafford
When Manchester United host Bayer Leverkusen tonight at Old Trafford, it will mark a return to the ground for a man who, following eight years of distinguished service across the Mersey river, has rightfully gone down as a Liverpool icon.
Sami Hyypia, formerly a towering Finnish international centre-half with 105 caps to his name, arrives in Manchester as manager of Bayer Leverkusen and will tread the Old Trafford turf for the first time since playing his part in a 4-1 win for Liverpool in 2009.
In his first season in sole charge of Die Werkself, Hyypia heads into a first Champions League clash as a manager hoping to mastermind something—if not similar to the trouncing handed out by Rafa Benitez's Reds four years ago, then close to that of Klaus Toppmoller's Leverkusen in 2002.
That year, the German club arrived at Old Trafford as outsiders (a position they find themselves in once more) in the Champions League semi final. However, despite trailing twice, Toppmoller's side, featuring the likes of Michael Ballack, Brazilian duo Ze Roberto and Lucio and a young Dimitar Berbatov, fought back to claim a 2-2 draw before a 1-1 draw at the BayArena handed them an away goals triumph.
Of course, history would paint that particular Leverkusen vintage as "Neverkusen", owing to their Champions League final loss, DFB Pokal final loss and second place finish in the Bundesliga, a tag which has stuck with them ever since. But that defeat of a United side featuring the likes of Veron, Scholes, Giggs and van Nistelrooy remains a tremendous high point.
Nevertheless, 11 years on and Hyypia will be hoping to kick start another Champions League run with a strong showing from his young, adventurous side. And having been handed a strong group also containing Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk and one of La Liga's brightest in Real Sociedad, how they start may prove extremely important if they're to reach the knockout stages.
While the English title winners head into the game as odds-on favourites with bookmakers tonight, a relatively inexperienced Bayer will have no qualms facing a United side that have somewhat lacked for fluency this season. After all, they take the field having won four of their opening five Bundesliga matches and having been the only German club to beat European champions Bayern Munich last season, winning 2-1 at the Allianz Arena last October.
Having been so proactive under the Hyypia/Sacha Lewandowski partnership last season, Bayer have continued with their lightning-quick transitional game under just Hyypia this—Lewandowski having returned to overseeing the Bayer youth sides.
The 4-3-3 formation remains, centred around the line-leading exploits of last season's Bundesliga top scorer Stefan Kiessling. Andre Schuerrle may have departed, but the 11 goals scored in the league already this season has shown that they remain a potent attacking force; the arrival of Heung-Min Son, a 21-year-old full of pace and clever movement and the continued emergence of Sidney Sam and his sledgehammer left foot having added further counter-attacking threat.
Further back, other new arrivals such as Bosnian defender Emir Spahic, Giulio Donati and the Bayern Munich midfielder Emre Can have added steel and determination. Lars Bender's defensive prowess in midfield (or at full-back) and the intelligent transitional play of Gonzalo Castro have also, crucially, remained. The goalkeeper Bernd Leno continues to see his reputation grow also.
All-in-all, Hyypia's charges can be expected to ask questions of David Moyes' men. With a youthful verve and a sometime thrilling style, Die Werkself have enough in their locker to create chances and to get something at Old Trafford.
Certainly, the ex-Liverpool man won't be expecting anything like his last Old Trafford encounter. But don't be surprised if his young side, full of character, come away with a good start to their European campaign in the bag.
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