Sven Bender is just one of five reasons Bayer Leverkusen can beat Rangers in the Europa League. - © 2019 DFL
Sven Bender is just one of five reasons Bayer Leverkusen can beat Rangers in the Europa League. - © 2019 DFL
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Five reasons Bayer Leverkusen will beat Rangers in the UEFA Europa League

Bayer Leverkusen vs. Rangers is perhaps the headline tie of the UEFA Europa League last 16, the draw pitting one of the most in-form Bundesliga teams against the record Scottish champions who made the final of this competition in 2008…

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Leverkusen should be the favourites, however. bundesliga.com looks at five reasons Die Werkself will win through to at least the quarter-finals this year…

1) King Kai Havertz

Havertz was still a month shy of his ninth birthday when Zenit Saint Petersburg - beaten home and away by RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League this term - defeated the Glasgow side 2-0 in the UEFA Cup final in Manchester.

Steven Davis was a 23-year-old box-to-box midfielder that day. Fast-forward 12 years and the Northern Irishman is a 35-year-old in his second spell at Rangers; still a first-team regular, but not quite the physical force of old. A knock even means he may not feature on Thursday. Havertz, in contrast, is a 21-year-old with the world at his feet, having blossomed into one of the most exciting young midfielders in the game.

Watch: ALL of Havertz's goals and assists last season!

No German Bundesliga player has been directly involved in more goals in 2020 than King Kai, who has scored 14 and assisted a further eight across all competitions. A rangy yet skilful left-footed attacking midfielder with seven Germany caps under his belt, Havertz also scored home and away against Porto in the previous round.

Stop Havertz, stop Leverkusen may be Rangers' thinking, but if Atletico Madrid - arguably the sport's most well-versed defensive cynics - couldn't keep him from pulling the strings in November's 2-1 win for Bayer, Davis and Co. could have their work cut out.

2) Morelos doesn't normally face Tahs and Tapsobas

At the other end of the pitch, Alfredo Morelos has been Rangers' best source of goals, at least in Europe, where he is the Europa League's joint-top scorer with six - and outright with 14 all told if the qualifying rounds are included. Jermaine Defoe bagged one more in the Scottish Premiership last term, but the Colombian is likely to start up front with Ryan Kent - previously of Freiburg - and Ianis Hagi either side of him.

Rangers coach Steven Gerrard tended to play a 4-3-3 in 2019/20, and deployed his side in a similar system in the opening game of 2020/21, a 1-0 win at Aberdeen. He could find his side up against a Leverkusen team playing a variation of a 3-4-3 on Thursday, opposite number Peter Bosz having shifted to the system at the turn of the year; seeing his Leverkusen put together a run of 17 wins, two draws and five defeats in all competitions.

"What am I meant to do against these guys?" - Alfredo Morales rarely comes up against a defence the calibre of Bayer Leverkusen's. - Getty Images

It means Rangers will be man for man in their final third at Ibrox on Thursday, putting a bigger pressure on the aforementioned trio to win their individual head-to-heads with Jonathan Tah, Sven Bender and, latterly, Edmond Tapsoba in Bosz's backline.

Tah and Tapsoba are hulking physical presences who both stand clear of 6'3", lining up either side of Bender, who is no shrinking violet at 6'1". But while Sven - twin brother of club captain Lars - averages 22 challenges won per game in the Bundesliga, Tah and Tapsoba shake out at 10 and eight apiece, and that's because they read the game well and boast the pace and power to cut off most danger at source. Even if Kent and Hagi can get the ball towards Morelos, he is likely to come off second-best once it gets there.

3) The supporting cast

Havertz ended up being Leverkusen's main man in front of goal this season after Kevin Volland and Lucas Alario got injured in the spring - but the strike duo more than played their part by contributing 12 goals each in all competitions and are both back fit.

Volland could be preferred in attack but Alario is an Argentina international whose six Bundesliga goals have been scored at rate of one every 151 minutes this season. He leads the line with more physicality than Volland, holding up the ball and bringing others into play, but his eye for goal remains sharp. Like Havertz, he scored home and away against Porto in the previous round.

Watch: Highlights of Leverkusen's Bailey-inspired 2-1 win over Bayern

Tucked in behind him and alongside Havertz will be one or both of Moussa Diaby and Leon Bailey. Diaby got the nod more often than not in the second half of the campaign, scoring five goals in total, while Bailey retains a flair for the big occasion, boasting goals against Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig.

Rangers will be kept busy at the back, and if they focus on stopping one of Leverkusen's final-third operators, there will be another one, two or even three ready to take advantage of the space.

4) Bosz, Gerrard and their European pedigrees

As a player, Gerrard's European pedigree was beyond reproach. The former Liverpool captain won the UEFA Cup in 2001 before steering the Reds to Champions League glory in 2005, almost single-handedly lifting his team from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 with AC Milan before winning on penalties in the Miracle of Istanbul.

Peter Bosz's (r.) Ajax were runners up to Jose Mourinho's (l.) Manchester United in the 2016/17 UEFA Europa League final. - Getty Images

Bosz was also a midfielder who, unlike Gerrard, picked up a domestic league title with Feyenoord in 1993 but made little impact on the continent. As a coach, however, the Bosz-man is out in front. Rangers have been impressing in Europe this season, but they failed to escape the group stage under Gerrard last term. Bosz steered an unfancied Ajax to the final in 2017 and has the personnel to go one better this year.

5) Leverkusen flying, Rangers rusty

Only Bayern (49) and Dortmund (39) earned more points than Leverkusen (35) in the Bundesliga in 2020Die Werkself also rebounded well from their Champions League group stage exit, sweeping aside Porto by an aggregate score of 5-2.

When Leverkusen were sharpening their senses in a Champions League group of death which contained Juventus as well as Atletico, Rangers were winning past St Joseph's, Progres Niederkorn, FC Midtjylland and Legia Warsaw before bettering Young Boys and Feyenoord to qualify alongside Porto, whom they beat at home, from a tricky Group G.

All signs point towards a Bayer Leverkusen victory, with Kevin Volland likely to lead the line. - 2019 DFL

The Glasgow side deserve credit for being the last remaining Scottish team in Europe (Germany still have five clubs in continental competition), but they have only made a single competitive outing since losing to Leverkusen five months ago - Saturday's narrow win at Aberdeen.

Having been back in action since May, Bosz's side should be much sharper when they take to the pitch at the BayArena. And maybe, just maybe, Leverkusen have the tools to shake the Neverkusen tag once and for all this season.