Leverkusen - Bayer 04 Leverkusen can put the gloss on their stirring return to the UEFA Champions League by qualifying for the last 16 of the competition with a win on Wednesday night. English champions Manchester United FC come calling to the hitherto impenetrable BayArena, however, and as Group E’s leaders, represent a stern obstacle for Sami Hyypiä’s men (kick-off 20.45 CET).
United, who sit sixth in the English Premier League, prevailed 4-2 at Old Trafford on Matchday 1, but after three games unbeaten since, Hyypiä has seen his side come into their own in competing with Europe’s top dogs. “We were a bit nervous in Manchester,” he pointed out. “This time though, we’ll be going in with clear heads and are confident of playing at the level we know we can.”
The fact that the crucial encounter takes place at the BayArena can only benefit die Werkself, who are unbeaten on home turf in the current campaign. “We’ve been playing really well at home this season,” said Hyypiä, who won the tournament with United’s domestic rivals Liverpool FC in 2005. Leverkusen have drawn once in the Bundesliga at home with European Champions FC Bayern München, the only stain on an otherwise perfect BayArena record both domestically and in Europe.
“We’re a power again at home,” highlighted Stefan Kießling, who scored a brace in their last continental fixture in front of their own fans, a 4-0 win against FC Shakhtar Donetsk. He was less present in Leverkusen’s last European tie, a 0-0 draw in Donetsk, but the performance showed a more battling side to Hyypiä’s troops - and kept their destiny in their own hands.
United, who have drawn away in Donetsk and to Real Sociedad de Futbol so far, won’t relinquish their top spot easily, despite personnel problems with the suspension of Marouane Fellaini and injuries to Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie. “Their squad is more than strong enough to cope with a few absentees,” believes Hyypiä, but mixed domestic form tells a different story.
The Red Devils have started slowly under new coach David Moyes, embarking on his first European campaign, while the club simultaneously embarks on a first campaign for 26 years without former manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Not that it tempers Hyypiä's anticipation in any way. “I’m really, really excited,” he added in his inimitable style at the pre-match press conference. “It’s going to be a good game.”
His excitement was deflated somewhat after the news of Sidney Sam's absence with a torn left thigh muscle, even if the Finnish tactician “has some ideas about his replacement”. One man who could come back into the side is midfielder Stefan Reinartz, but for Hyypiä, regardless of who plays, to beat a resilient United side, tactics are just as important as personnel.
“We need to work defensively just as well as we do going forward,” he pointed out. Going forward, Kießling will be one of their main weapons, particularly against a United defence which conceded two of their three goals so far against Leverkusen, and he had the last word in the press conference - as he presumably aims to do in the qualification shootout. “If we bring our best performance for 90 minutes then we can beat anyone - even Man Utd.”
Bayer 04 Leverkusen: Leno - Donati, Toprak, Spahic, Can - L. Bender, Reinartz, Rolfes - Castro, Kießling, Son
Manchester United FC: de Gea - Smalling, P. Jones, Vidic, Evra - Valencia, Anderson, Giggs, Kagawa - Rooney - Hernandez