Raphael Honigstein, German football expert
First of all Raphael, tell us about Bayer Leverkusen’s start to the season and their form at the BayArena...
Raphael: “They’ve had a poor start by their standards, including a defeat against Borussia Monchengladbach in their first league game. They have stabilised since then and had won three out of four in the league before losing against Werder Bremen on Saturday. After they beat Borussia Dortmund, Roger Schmidt said they were getting to where they want to be and it was about maintaining that level.
“They are really good at home and generate quite a good atmosphere, especially in Europe, in what is a fairly small stadium. They can really turn it on at home, but they can be a bit fragile away. Having said that, the way they let CSKA Moscow back into the game (a 2-2 draw after leading 2-0 at home in MD1) will be a huge disappointment for them. They had total control and somehow threw it away. There is a sense that they can find ways of not winning, that’s the cliché if you like about Leverkusen, but there is an element of truth in it.”
What style of play can we expect from Bayer Leverkusen?
Raphael: “Bayer Leverkusen play with incredible intensity and there are interesting similarities to Spurs because they press hard and are stacked with players who are comfortable on ball. However, sometimes the balance isn’t quite right and because they run so much and work so hard, they lack a little composure when it actually comes to playing football. At the moment, it’s right, but it’s a precarious, difficult way of playing which comes with some inherent risks. It’s an all-out pressing style.
“I watched them play Atletico Madrid in the Champions League a couple of years ago (2014-15) when they took them all the way to penalties. They were really unlucky. As a spectacle it was strange because they pressed each other so hard, neither team had any time on the ball and as a result, there were very few chances. It can be like that and a bit attritional against them, they are very awkward to play against.”
Below: Hakan Calhanoglu in action
What players should we look out for?
Raphael: “They have some lovely talent in midfield. Hakan Calhanoglu strikes the ball as well as anyone in Europe, from free-kicks and corners, wonderful technique. Julian Brandt is one of the up and coming stars of German football, a winger, another wonderful talent. Personally, I really like Charles Aranguiz. He’s a Chilean international who is almost as highly-rated as Arturo Vidal was a few years ago when he moved to Leverkusen (he played for Bayer Leverkusen between 2007-11 before moving to Juventus, now at Bayern Munich). Leverkusen have a fantastic habit and tradition of unearthing South American talent. Wendell, the left-back, is another player I really like as well, he’s a Brazilian and the latest import starting to make big waves. Beni Henrichs is a right-back, he’s only a young kid (19) but he’s seen as possibly the long-term successor to Philip Lahm in the German team. It’s early days for him, he’s just established himself, but he’s a wonderful player as well.”
Below: Chile international Charles Aranguiz celebrates at Borussia Dortmund
What can you tell us about Bayer Leverkusen’s coach, Roger Schmidt?
Raphael: “Roger Schmidt first had some success at Paderborn 07 in the second and third division in Germany and then he was approached by Red Bull Salzburg (2012), who had a high-pressing game under Ralf Rangnick (RBS sporting director at the time), so he was seen as the right coach for them and did really well there. He famously beat Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich 3-0 in a friendly and completely played them off the park. On the back of that, he got the job at Leverkusen. It’s interesting, he didn’t play at a particularly high level and he’s an engineer by trade, who in his spare time decided he wanted to see if he could be a football manager.”
Below: Bayer Leverkusen boss Roger Schmidt
Finally, how do you think it will go at the BayArena?
Raphael: “I think it will be an incredibly close game, perhaps with few chances. I think at home, Leverkusen might have a little extra, but you could easily see the two teams splitting the points over the two legs, both winning at home, for example, or two draws. I don’t think there will be much in it at all. I must say, before the first game in the group, I tipped Leverkusen and Monaco to go through, with Spurs third. However, Leverkusen have given themselves some trouble by drawing two games they really should have won. If Leverkusen don’t win this game, I think Spurs will have a great chance of going through. It’s the tightest group in the competition.”