We’ve already seen 8 of the 16 teams in action, with some truly spectacular results and performances, along the way. Tonight, we see the first 4 of the remaining 8 make their UCL returns, with everything to play for and everyone looking to make a statement.
We’ll see Manchester City host the irrepressible Monaco, while Bayer Leverkusen and Atletico Madrid square off at the BayArena. As usual, both matches will kick off at 8:45 p.m., West African Standard time.
It’s now time to get into the action.
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid:
If this game had come a week (or two) earlier for either side, it would have been a much bigger worry for them, given the fact that their immediate-past runs of form had been “iffy”, to say the least. They both recovered quite nicely to win their last two respective league games, and should carry a fair bit of confidence with them, heading into this one. Going by their European records against each other, there isn’t very much to separate both teams: In 2010, they were drawn in the same Europa League group, with both of their encounters against each other ending in 1-1 draws. In 2015, they met in the UCL Round of 16; each team won their respective home match by a 1-0 scoreline, with Atletico Madrid eventually advancing on penalties.
Leverkusen has won its last two Bundesliga games, scoring 6 goals, after suffering back-to-back defeats (against Monchengladbach and Hamburger), and they seem to have recovered their form in the nick of time. Even though they’re currently sitting in 8th place (out of the European qualification slots), their domestic season hasn’t been totally awful. They rank in the Bundesliga’s top three for dribbles, shots on target, possession and tackles per game, and if they can start to build up a significant run of form, they might be able to close up the 7 point gap between themselves and 3rd placed Dortmund.
They’ve got a poor record in this stage of the Champions League, failing to make it past the Round of 16 since the 2001/02 season (when they eventually lost in the finals against another Madrid team), losing 8 of their total 9 encounters; but they’ve scored in all of their UCL home games against Spanish opposition, so far, so that should give them something to hold on to.
- Javier Hernandez seems to have recovered from one of the longest goal droughts on the continent, which saw him go well over a hundred days, without scoring. He now has 5 goals in his last 3 games and has scored or assisted in all of his games, this year, and he’ll be looking to add to his measly tally of 1 UCL goal, so far. Tonight’s opponents will be especially wary of him, not only because of his recent return to form, but also because it was his late goal that knocked them out of the UCL quarter finals, in 2015.
- The Germans will be missing Hakan Calhanoglu, tonight, after having a four month ban imposed on him by FIFA, for a breach of contract earlier in his career. The Turkish dead-ball specialist scored the only goal in the 2015 edition of this fixture, and already had 1 goal and 2 assists, in this season’s UCL. They’ve managed to win their last two games without him, but he could still be a very big miss.
- Lars Bender is a doubt for tonight’s game, while Jonathan Tah will definitely not be taking any part in the proceedings.
Atletico Madrid lost 1 and drew 4, in six competitive games, before recovering to win their last two La Liga games against (Celta Vigo and Sporting Gijon), but even those wins weren’t as comfortable as they could’ve been. They needed 2 late goals, from Yannick Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann, to save the from defeat (against Celta), and a quick-fire Kevin Gameiro hat trick to secure all three points (against Sporting). Overall, things haven’t been that bad and they’ve only lost three games since their last Champions League match, against Bayern Munich (with two of those coming in the Copa del Rey). As they make their UCL return, tonight, they’ll be looking to recover the form that saw them win 5 of their 6 games in the group stages, conceding only 2 goals along the way.
- Fans will be be anxious to see which one of his striking options Diego Simeone is going to go with, tonight. Fernando Torres has found the net thrice, in his last 4 games, and his wonder strike against Celta Vigo made him Atletico Madrid’s 6th highest goal-scorer of all time. Kevin Gameiro, on the other hand, has 4 goals in his last 3; thanks, in no small part, to his 5 minute hat trick against Sporting Gijon (the second fastest in the history of La Liga).
- Both Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco should feature tonight. The team’s top 2 Champions League goal-scorers have combined for 3 goals and 3 assists, in their last two games and should be Atleti’s most potent threats, tonight.
- A huge chunk of Altetico Madrid’s notorious backline is either missing or in doubt, for tonight’s game (including Jan Oblak, Juanfran and Diego Godin), and a possible combination of Miguel Angel Moya and a makeshift defence could improve Leverkusen’s chances in front of goal.
The hosts will be going into tonight’s game looking to exact a measure of revenge for the events of February/March, 2015. In a similar fashion to this year’s tie, they hosted the first leg of the round (emerging 1-0 winners), but it wasn’t enough to see them through, in the end. If it is at all possible, tonight, they’ll be looking to put the result as far beyond doubt as they can, before heading into the second leg. Atletico hasn’t been known for scoring tons of away goals in the UCL (averaging 1 per game since the beginning of last year) and that’s something that could aid Leverkusen’s cause.
However, with all of that being said, the away team should still be considered as favourites, having never failed to make it past the Round of 16, under Diego Simeone. With 2 appearances in the last 3 finals, they also have the more experienced UCL squad and they’ve kept 25 clean sheets in their last 42 Champions League games.
Both teams’ preparations for tonight’s encounter haven’t been particularly ideal, but they’ll be well aware that all excuses will cease to matter as soon as they step unto the field of play.