[UCL PREVIEW: Bayer Leverkusen-Paris SG]Five losses in seven games has Bayer Leverkusen coach Sami Hyypia concerned, as befits a man tasked with bridging a huge gap, financially and competitively, in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.
Though it is currently second in the Bundesliga behind runaway leader and defending European champion Bayern Munich, Bayer’s poor run leads it right into Paris St. Germain and its star-saturated roster. The first leg is Tuesday at the BayArena (live on Fox Sports 2 at 2:30 p.m. ET).
“Paris has spent a lot of money in recent years and built a very good team,” the former Liverpool and Finland defender said in a colossal understatement. “They have a lot of individual quality and we'll have to be at our absolute best to get a good result. We have to give 100 percent in every department.”
Bayer was something less than 100 percent as it fell to Schalke, 2-1, in a league match last weekend at home, where it also lost a week ago to Kaiserslautern in the German Cup quarterfinals. Hyypia believes he saw enough improvement in the Bundesliga performance to offer encouragement against PSG, though Bayer conceded the winner after equalizing with an own goal.
“If we play like we did against Schalke on Saturday, we can cause Paris problems,” says Hyypia, whose resume as a player features a 2004 Champions League title with Liverpool. “If Paris underestimates us because of recent results, that would be good for us, but I can't influence that. We have to focus on our own game. It is very important that our fans get behind us no matter what.”
Bayer qualified for the knockout stage despite losing group games to Manchester United by scores of 4-2 and 5-0. It still finished second by taking 10 out of 12 points from Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad, neither of which features a player anything like PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored eight goals in his five group appearances and is on an amazing run of 33 goals in his last 27 games for PSG and Sweden.
“Paris have one or two top international players in every position, so we cannot just focus on one or two players,” says Hyypia. “It will be important to neutralize Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so that he is not able to get into scoring positions. He is a very good player - maybe one of the very best right now. He can score a goal without having much of a chance.”
Most experts don’t give Bayer much of a chance in this two-game series, and its dinged-up back line doesn’t help its cause. Centerback Emir Spahic left the Schalke game in the 60th minute with a thigh injury and defenderStefan Reinartz has sat out the last three games with a heel injury, but is expected to return against PSG.
After a 3-0 Ligue 1 defeat of Valenciennes over the weekend, PSG tops the standings by five points over second-place Monaco. After scoring the first and second goals, respectively, Ezequiel Lavezziand Ibrahimovic were substituted and should be in top gear to face Bayer.
“Like every German team, Leverkusen are very athletic,” says PSG head coach Laurent Blanc, like Hyypia a defender in his playing days and a World Cup winner with France in 1998. “We have to be on our toes from ever free-kick and corner because they can be very dangerous from set pieces. We will try and dominate the match by taking care of the ball. It's the same pressure that accompanies any other game [that] everyone expects us to win.”
Bayer is far back of Bayern, yet holds slim edge in second place ahead of last year’s European finalist Borussia Dortmund, which it defeated, 1-0, at Signal Iduna Park in front of more than 80,000 fans in early December. That result offers hope Bayer can rise to a considerable challenge, and it also meets a PSG squad lacking Uruguay attackerEdinson Cavani, sidelined since suffering a thigh injury against Bordeaux Jan. 31.
“They have more resources in financial terms, but we have already proved that we can prevail against top sides,” said Reinartz. “Nothing is settled before both matches have been played out.”