Preview – Bayer Leverkusen looking to get back on track against Benfica

Die Werkself got off to a poor start in the competition after their 1-0 loss against Monaco, in a match which saw Roger Schmidt’s team squander a bucketload of good chances. Tonight’s match is played at the BayArena, and already now it is clear that the encounter against the 33 times Portuguese league winners is a vital fixture. Both teams enter this match on the back of losses against the two teams that were considered to be most likely to fight for a third place finish instead of one of the top two places.

At the start of the season the newly instilled pressing game by Roger Schmidt and the raise of Karim Bellarabi and Tin Jedvaj made Bayer the talk of the town, and some pundits went even as far as suggesting that Leverkusen might become Bayern’s fiercest rivals this season. However, there’s little doubt that this has changed after a few bad performances in the league(3-3 against Bremen and the 4-1 loss against Wolfsburg) and a poor showing against Monaco in the Champions League. Bayer coach Schmidt reacted grumpily when a journalist ask him about the defensive weakness of his side according to Bild, because now there seems to be a consensus within the press that Bayer are in need of conceding fewer goals if they want to be successful this season.

On top of that comes Bayer’s last two performances at home – a 4-0 loss against PSG and a 5-0 loss against Manchester United – and one really sees why this group of players might feel like they have a point to prove in tonight’s match. However, the last two matches in the Bundesliga have seen Bayer keep two clean sheets. Roger Schmidt told uefa.com that he is optimistic about his team’s ability to defend in tonight’s match:

Against a team like Benfica, who have a lot of excellent counterattacking players, we have to replicate the good defensive work we have done in recent matches. We’re doing well in pressing without the ball, and that might decide the match. If we do what we are capable of perfectly, we can win.

After the team’s loss against Monaco, winning is the only thing that counts according to Schmidt:

There are just six matches in the group stage, so we have to start winning as soon as possible. In Monaco, we saw that we can play our football in European games as well as in the Bundesliga, but playing well is not enough – now we have to win.

Minor injury worries for Schmidt

Four of Bayer’s players are not going to join the match day squad due to injuries. Captain Simon Rolfes, the young talented winger Julian Brandt, midfielder Gonzalo Castro and centre back Kyriakos Papadopoulos are all injured at the moment. It’s up in the air if left back Sebastian Boenisch is going to recover in time to enter the fray.

Ömer Toprak was back in action against Freiburg, allowing Schmidt to play his preferred centre back pairing(Toprak and Spahic). Stefan Reinartz is therefor likely to start in holding midfield alongside Lars Bender. Provided Boenisch makes it back from his heel problems in time, Bayer’s formation tonight could look like this:

The head to head – Benfica could turn into Bayer’s bogey team in Europe

The players themselves are also feeling the pressure if Stefan Kiessling is to be believed. The striker told the BayArena Magazin:

We haven’t achieved all that much on the international stage, we have always struggled to perform. We have to get beyond that! Therefor we need to set a sign against Benfica.

If one takes a closer look at the head to head between Bayer and Benfica one might be tempted to think that a win would mean an awful lot for Bayer tonight. The two teams have played against each other in European competitions four times, and Bayer have lost twice and two matches ended in draws. The last two meetings in the Europa League in February 2013 were won by Benfica. Bayer lost 1-0 at home and 2-1 away at the Estádio da Luz.

Back in the 1993/94 season the two teams met each other in the Uefa Cup winners cup. Bayer managed to get a respectable 1-1 draw at home, but what was to follow at the BayArena hasn’t been forgotten since. In a dramatic match which saw the best of Benfica legend Rui Costa and the Leverkusen greats Ulf Kirsten and Andreas Thom, the score was tied at a 4-4 in the end. After the match long time serving Bayer Leverkusen sporting manager Rainer Calmund classified the match as one of his worst losses in his career.

Benfica have a decent record against German teams(12 wins, 12 draws and 14 losses) and Bayer in particular. If they win again tonight, Bayer might have found a new bogey team in European competitions.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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