Trailing by a goal following the first leg of their Europa League last 16 tie, Bayer Leverkusen welcome Atalanta BC to the BayArena on Thursday.
An entertaining encounter in Bergamo raises the prospect of another close contest for a place in the quarter-finals, with the hosts trailing 3-2 from last week.
Despite Charles Aranguiz earning the visitors an early lead last week with an 11th-minute strike, Bayer Leverkusen were unable to retain that advantage for long and went in a goal down at half time.
After then going 3-1 behind shortly after the break, Die Werkself were at least able to reduce their arrears to a single goal by the first leg’s conclusion, as Moussa Diaby’s brilliant individual effort beat Juan Musso – leaving them with a more manageable deficit before this week’s return.
Having established themselves in the Bundesliga top four with a run of four straight league victories, Gerardo Seoane’s side secured a commendable draw with Bayern Munich shortly before last Thursday’s jaunt to Lombardy. However, upon their return, they came unstuck on Sunday afternoon, at home to Koln.
Drawing a rare blank, Leverkusen were beaten 1-0 by their local rivals – leaving them third in the table but only a point above sixth place. Now, though, they return their attention to their current continental campaign, with a proud home record sure to inspire confidence ahead of Atalanta’s arrival.
Leverkusen have won 17 of their 25 home games in the Europa League and before a loss against Seoane’s Young Boys side last season had gone 11 games without defeat at the BayArena in the competition.
Featuring in the knockout phase for a seventh time – the most appearances of any German club – the 1988 UEFA Cup winners also won all three of their home group stage matches; scoring nine times in the process to finish top of a competitive Group G.
To continue their interest in reaching May’s final in Seville, the Rhineside club will now have to send their latest visitors the way of previous victims Real Betis, Celtic and Ferencvaros.
Following their first leg success, Atalanta have won each of their three Europa League knockout matches since dropping down from the Champions League at the end of last year – in stark contrast to their ailing domestic form during 2022.
Luis Muriel’s double strike at the Gewiss Stadium last week – in a game where Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky also pulled off several crucial saves – comes amid a rare spell in the Nerazzurri’s recent history when they have struggled to score goals.
Though Gian Piero Gasperini’s men are renowned for their attacking flair and penalty-box potency, they have started to lose their touch in the final third: failing to find the net in three of their last four Serie A fixtures.
No doubt, the absence of Muriel’s Colombian compatriot Duvan Zapata has played a major role in such a decline, which now sees their once cast-iron place in Italy’s top six in severe jeopardy – particularly after a second goalless draw in three months against lowly Genoa on Sunday.
Despite their domestic downturn, the Bergamaschi took apart Greek champions Olympiacos 5-1 on aggregate in last month’s Europa League playoff round, and now travel to Germany with a precious lead to protect.
Atalanta also have an impressive away record this term, and with nine wins and just two losses from 14 league games on the road, Gasperini will expect to see his side in the quarter-final draw on Friday.
Bayer Leverkusen Europa League form:
Bayer Leverkusen form (all competitions):
Atalanta BC Europa League form:
Atalanta BC form (all competitions):
We say: Bayer Leverkusen 1-1 Atalanta BC (Atalanta win 4-3 on aggregate)
Despite a goal-laden and expansive first leg, neither side managed to score at all upon their return to domestic duty at the weekend, and Leverkusen may find Wirtz’s absence as disruptive as Zapata’s has been for Atalanta.
The Bergamaschi may be more miss than hit of late, but they are generally a force to be reckoned with away from home, so they can hang on for a draw to squeeze through to the last eight at their hosts’ expense.