EUROPEAN football expert Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his favourite fancies from Wednesday night’s Champions League clash between Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen.
Atletico Madrid v Bayer Leverkusen | Wednesday 19:45 | BT Sport
Bayer Leverkusen have endured a deeply disappointing season in 2016/17 since losing the first leg of their Last 16 Champions League tie 4-2 at home to Atletico Madrid, the Germans have picked up one point from a possible nine and sacked head coach Roger Schmidt after three years in charge.
Die Werkself were beaten 2-0 at home to Mainz before being demolished 6-2 in Dortmund but there were a few signs of life in last Friday’s frustrating 1-1 draw when welcoming Werder Bremen to the BayArena.
Leverkusen appointed Tayfun Korkut – sacked by Hannover and resigned from second-tier Kaiserslautern in his last two gigs – but despite having fewer than five days at the helm, the Turk oversaw an improved display that was only denied victory by a missed penalty in the sixth minute of stoppage-time.
Leverkusen facing mission impossible
However, overturning their first leg deficit appears fanciful. Only twice before have sides come back in the Champions League to progress after losing the home leg and in both cases it was a one-goal deficit.
With playmaker and dead-ball specialist Hakan Calhanoglu suspended along with full-back Benjamin Henrichs, their best centre-half Jonathan Tah injured and defensive midfielder Lars Bender still struggling, it’ll be a tall order.
The visitors have W1-D0-L9 across their past 10 Champions League knockout games and arrive with only two triumphs in eight across all competitions (W2-D1-L5). Bayer have leaked 18 goals in that eight-game sample and have recorded only two clean sheets in games as guests this term.
Leverkusen can at least take heart from their impressive goalscoring record; the Germans have found the back of the net in 15 of their 16 away outings this term and although Atletico Madrid boast a wonderfully strong European defensive record, I loathe to get involved in clean sheet or ‘to nil’ markets here.
Avoid an Atletico clean sheet
The Spaniards are without banned Filipe Luis and Gabi whilst Stefan Savic will play with a protective mask after breaking his nose during the weekend win at Granada. The squad’s strong enough to cope with such absences but there’s been a noticeable shift in Los Colchoneros’ style.
Already this season, Atletico have conceded 22 La Liga goals – in 2015/16, the hosts shipped just 18 across their 38 fixtures. In fact, Diego Simeone’s side recorded only their fourth shutout in 13 games during the triumph against Granada last time out.
Renowned for their stifling pressing game and wonderfully effective counter-attack, Atletico have looked for more possession in games, playing it out from the back. Los Colchoneros have played more expansively, pressing higher up the pitch and even switching formation to fit in their attacking talent.
In Germany, Atleti were in complete control but still found ways to give their opponents a route back into the encounter and whilst their backline record in this competition is the best on the planet, their erratic recent nature is enough to swerve any selection based on defensive strength.
Atletico should prove too good
For the record, the capital club have conceded just once in eight home European ties and accumulated a wonderful 16 clean sheets in 18 continental ties at the Vicente Calderon. Over their past 24 hours of action in the Champions League here they’ve shipped just four goals.
So Atletico should win– they’re unbeaten in the knockout stages of the Champions League at the Vicente Calderon since 1997, have lost once here in the competition as a whole since 2009 and have W7-D1-L0 in their last eight Champions League outings on home soil.
Flying Frenchman can deliver the goods
But rather than back the hosts at skinny prices, I do like the 11/10 available from 888 on hot-shot Antoine Griezmann scoring at anytime – 4/1 quotes in the First Goalscorer market also shouldn’t be ignored.
Simeone’s side have only failed to score twice at home all season and have netted 44 goals in 22 home matches in all competitions.
Of players based in Spain, only Lionel Messi (16) and Luis Suarez (13) have scored more goals than Griezmann (12) in 2017 and the Frenchman relishes European nights under the lights.
The 25 year-old has been directly involved in nine of Atletico’s last 10 home Champions League goals (scoring seven) and the flying Frenchman, who shared a well-deserved Ballon d’Or podium with Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in December, looks too big to ignore here.
Atletico Madrid v Bayer Leverkusen – Antoine Griezmann to score at anytime (11/10 888)