If there is going to be one surprise upset in the Champions League Last 16 this season it might very well be Bayer Leverkusen ousting French champions Paris-Saint Germain when the two sides meet in the first of two legs this week.
Their recent form may not suggest as much, but Leverkusen are out to prove a point in Europe. With their big budget and star names, Paris-Saint Germain will no doubt be favorites, but Sami Hyypia ‘s Leverkusen are every bit capable of springing a surprise on Laurent Blanc and his troop of top earners.
If Leverkusen refocus, play to their potential and utilize their impressive counter-attacking game, they could knock out a team whose market value is more than twice theirs. Can the team that is no stranger to European upsets make history once more?
Recent Form Not a Worry
On Wednesday, Leverkusen were knocked out of the German Cup by second-division side Kaiserslautern. Four days later they lost their fifth match in seven against Schalke. Nevertheless, their form since the league restart in January has merely been a blip in an otherwise impressive season.
In fact, Leverkusen had one of their best ever league starts in club history. Never before in the Bundesliga have they won 14 games after 21 matchdays. Leverkusen also set a new points record when they beat Borussia Dortmund in December and have the best defense in Germany after Bayern Munich.
And their Champions League campaign so far is nothing to scoff at either. In a group with the seasoned Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk as well as the previous year’s surprise package Real Sociedad, Leverkusen qualified with impressive performances against the Ukrainian champions and the Spanish outfit. Their two defeats against Manchester United were more a sign of the team’s inexperience rather than a lack of quality.
History On Their Side
Leverkusen overcame the odds before, and can certainly do it again. When they last reached the quarterfinals of the competition back in 2002, few expected them to get there as well. That season they overcame the likes of Juventus, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United on their way to the final. In what still remains one of the most remarkable European runs in history, Leverkusen defied the odds at every stage when least expected.
Fourteen years earlier, Leverkusen pulled off an even more remarkable achievement when they won the UEFA Cup. Only a couple of years after establishing themselves in the Bundesliga, the team that just barely qualified for Europe they knocked out Barcelona and then favorites Werder Bremen to reach the final.
In the first leg of the final they lost 3-0 to spanish side Espanyol. Just when it all seemed over, Leverkusen won the return leg by the same scoreline before eventually coming out on top in penalties.
Furthermore, Leverkusen’s record against French teams in Europe is quite favorable. In fact, their record in two-legged ties is flawless. They have only lost one of six home games against French opposition. Overall they have lost only three of 11 matches against teams from France. PSG on the other hand have only ever won one two-legged tie against Bundesliga opposition, back in the 2008-09 season.
What They Need To Do
So just how can Leverkusen pull of this upset?
For one, they have to regain the defensive composure and discipline that has gotten them where they are this season. Bernd Leno, who has been the Bundesliga’s standout goalkeeper so far this season, will need reinforcement from Omer Toprak and Emir Spahic in front of him. The two central defenders were in great form earlier this season and need to rediscover their chemistry to keep out the likes of Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Because PSG have so many potent attacking options, Leverkusen will likely see less of the ball. As such, they must be sharp in possession and utilize the space well on the counter. Last season Leverkusen were arguably the best counter-attacking side in the Bundesliga and with players like Heung-Min Son and Sidney Sam they have two of the quickest players in Europe at their disposal. Supply and support them and they can get behind PSG’s defenders and score.
Finally, if Leverkusen are to advance, they must think and perform like a big team. Much has been said about the team’s inability to step up when it matters most. Recent performances hinted that the occasion may simply have been too much for them.
However, the time is ripe for the team to take the step to the next level and prove that they are no longer just a sporadic, but an enduring and formidable European presence. Players like Simon Rolfes, Stefan Kiessling, Gonzalo Castro are at their peak while Son, Sam and Lars Bender are hungry for success.
Hyypia has fine-tuned his team for nearly two years now, and they have enough experience behind them to make the step up. The clash against PSG can be a defining moment for Leverkusen if the team is ready to accept and rise to the occasion.