Moussa Diaby, Lukas Hradecky and a terrific home record in European competition are just some of the reasons Bayer Leverkusen can go into their UEFA Europa League round of 16 second leg against Atalanta confident of overturning a 3-2 deficit. bundesliga.com outlines five reasons for Werkself optimism.
1. No Wirtz, no Schick, no problem
While Florian Wirtz is sidelined for the rest of the season and the Bundesliga's second highest scorer with 20 goals this term, Patrik Schick, is still working his way back to fitness, Leverkusen are still a potent force going forward.
The German top-flight's free-scoring side have proved they can still deliver up front in spite of the Czech striker's recent absences. Moussa Diaby, in particular, has weighed in with three goals during his injured teammate's recovery, and his scintillating strike in the first leg brought his tally up to 16 goals across all competitions in 2021/22. Added to that, the French attacking phenomenon has added nine assists, marking him out as a likely game-changer.
Schick's understudy Lucas Alario is also averaging close to a goal every game since Schick was sidelined. Sardar Azmoun has been eased into life with the club he joined in January, but the Iranian enjoys the Europa League and has a scoring rate of more than one per 90 minutes in the competition. Could it be time for Gerardo Seoane to hand him his first start?
Watch: Enjoy a Diaby hat-trick at the BayArena
2. A solid start to build upon
When they analysed the first leg in Lombardy, Leverkusen will have been proud of their opening to a game in which they caused their opponents all sorts of problems. Charles Aranguiz's spectacularly struck free-kick looked in all the way only to hit the inside of the post before bouncing away to safety. That threat from set-pieces should be no secret, after our new Bundesliga Match Fact highlighted Leverkusen's proficiency from free-kicks.
The Chilean was celebrating soon afterwards, however, netting his first goal in European competition in two years following some sublime build-up play and an eye-catching assist from Wirtz. "We started really well, then conceded a simple goal and we looked shaky," Jonathan Tah explained after the match. "We would have liked a better result but we haven't lost yet, it's still possible to go through," the defender explained. "[Moussa] Diaby’s goal [for 3-2] was important," coach Seoane added, before raising a rallying cry ahead of Thursday's return: "We always want to win, of course."
3. Hradecky: captain fantastic
Ok, so Bayer may have conceded three times in Bergamo, but that shouldn't take away from the part that flying Finnish 'keeper Hradecky played in keeping the Bundesliga side in this tie. Pulling off a string of remarkable saves when Leverkusen were really up against at the Gewiss Stadium proved inspirational to those around him and kept the visitors' focused on the task of getting back into the tie, which they eventually did through Diaby's crucial goal not long after after the hour mark.
Indeed, coach Seoane was full of praise for one particularly astounding save his shot stopper pulled off with the game at 3-1. "It was a key moment in the match. He kept us in it. It was a very important turning point," the tactician said. In this sort of form, Atalanta can expect captain Hradecky - who has eight clean sheets across all competitions so far this term - to again be a colossal presence in the return leg. "[I] believe we can beat them at home next week," the Finland international insisted.
4. History points to home advantage
Leverkusen have won 17 of their 25 home games in the Europa League and, prior to a loss against Seoane's Young Boys last season, went 11 games without defeat at the BayArena in the competition. The hosts are playing in the knockout phase for a seventh time, which is more than any other German club have managed, while they are just two goals shy of a century in this competition.
The 1987/88 UEFA Cup winners also won all three of their home group stage matches - against Ferencvaros, Real Betis and Celtic - scoring nine times in the process as they finished top of the Group G standings with 13 points. Impressive numbers, all told, for the boys from the banks of the Rhine to boast ahead of their very first meeting with Atalanta on German soil.
5. Seoane, the man for big European nights
Seoane has proven himself capable of getting his sides to produce big performances in Europe when their backs are to the wall.
One of them came against Italian opposition when he guided Young Boys to a 2-1 home victory over a Juventus side featuring ex-Bayern Munich men Mario Mandzukic and Douglas Costa, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo, in the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League group stage. Leverkusen were on the wrong end of their boss' handiwork as Young Boys won 4-3 in Switzerland and 2-0 in Germany in the Europa League Round of 32 last season to surprisingly pip the Bundesliga outfit to a place in the next round.
He also has a clear idea of what his team need to do following their first-leg defeat: "We have to improve our performance, control the game more and be more dangerous in the final third." Gameplan sorted, now just to execute it.
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