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Preview: Leverkusen - Villarreal

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Villarreal's European adventure continues. Slap another label on the suitcase, because after visiting Belarus, Croatia, Greece, Belgium, and Italy, a trip to Germany is next. Leverkusen is a relatively small German town (about the size of Vila-real's near neighbor Castellón de la Plana) famous for chemical manufacturing, and the club was in fact started in 1904 by workers at the Bayer factory, hence its official name. Promoted to the Bundesliga only in 1979, the club has enjoyed success domestically and in Europe, featuring South American as well as domestic players. But, though the club prides itself on a "family-friendly" atmosphere at its 30,000-seat stadium, supporters of the "big clubs" claim Bayer Leverkusen doesn't have a very large fan base or traditions, and don't consider them true rivals. Not that different from some of the barbs that have been aimed Villarreal's way in the past few years.

Leverkusen's best season was probably 2002, though they came away with nothing to show for it; they blew a five-point lead in the league with three games left to play, lost the German Cup final to Schalke, and lost the European Cup final to Real Madrid on that brilliant Zidane goal.

Michael Ballack was a member of that team, and he's returned to play (sparingly) for a Leverkusen side that is currently second in the Bundesliga again, though well behind Borussia Dortmund. As for the Europa League, Leverkusen posted three wins and three draws in a group that included Atlético Madrid (whom they tied 1-1 home and away), and they handily disposed of Ukrainian outsiders Metalist Kharkiv in the round of 32.

The Leverkusen roster has some players you may have heard of: René Adler, their keeper, was supposed to be the German national team's first choice in South Africa but suffered a knee injury; two of their players, the splendidly-named Tranquillo Barnetta (injured, but still worth a mention!) and Eren Derdiyok played for the Swiss team that defeated Spain in their opening World Cup match; and Chilean defender-midfielder Arturo Vidal and German attacker Stefan Kießling represented their nations in South Africa. And while this is a young team generally (apart from Ballack), mention must be made of Sami Hyypiä, who shone in Liverpool for so many years. At age 37, he's still playing regularly in the defence and has agreed to become a Leverkusen assistant coach when he eventually retires.

But perhaps the most exciting players Leverkusen has are two 23-year old midfielders, Sidney Sam and Renato Augusto. German "Sid" Sam was signed from Hamburg this summer and has scored six goals in the Bundesliga plus five in the Europa League. Brazilian Augusto has been with the Werkself since 2008 and has five league goals. The team averages over two goals per game, both home and away, and Vidal is their leading scorer with nine goals, so Villarreal will have to watch out for multiple threats.

Leverkusen doesn't have the tradition or huge fan base of Napoli, but they certainly are a club to be respected, and their team is much more balanced. Bayer Leverkusen's 4-3-2-1 or 4-4-2 can be almost a 4-4-1-1, as Vidal plays a similar role to Rossi, providing a link to Kießling or Derdiyok up front, and their fullbacks frequently will lead attacks down the wing.

Oddly, they have been more successful in the Bundesliga on the road (8-3-1) than at home (6-4-3), and they have scored more goals away and allowed more goals at home. On paper, they don't look like a team that's likely to keep a clean sheet at home, but they might not be an easy proposition on the road either. And their form since the Bundesliga started up again has been a bit iffy. On the weekend, they handled Wolfsburg easily enough, but before that they blew a 2-0 lead away to Werder Bremen (like Wolfsburg, having a horrible year), allowing two goals in the last eight minutes. Prior to that, they defeated Stuttgart (also struggling) 4-2 at home with two goals in the last nine minutes. So I guess the lesson is: don't go home early; something could happen late.

I certainly would look for a more open game in Germany than we saw in the away leg of the last round. Leverkusen are a tall team, so we'll need to watch out for high balls into the area--free kicks, corners, and crosses, as always. I don't expect Villarreal to shut out Leverkusen in Germany, but I also believe that we should have more opportunities to score than we did in the Stadio San Paolo. Defender Manuel Friedrich will miss both matches with a broken collarbone, and I think that Rossi and Nilmar should be able to get some opprtunities behind the Leverkusen defense, which can be fairly creaky.

Coach Garrido is without Joan Capdevila in this first leg-- suspended for two yellow cards against Napoli-- especially unfortunate as Mario doesn't offer a huge offensive threat down the right wing. Maybe Joan Oriol can step in here? Other than that, the squad is as usual of late, with Ángel, Senna, and Cicinho missing out (one player will be dropped prior to the match):

Keepers: Diego López, Juan Carlos, Diego Mariño.
Defenders: Mario, Joan Oriol, Gonzalo, Musacchio, Marchena, Catalá, Kiko.
Midfielders: Borja Valero, Bruno, Santi Cazorla, Cani, Matilla, Wakaso.
Strikers: Marco Ruben, Nilmar, Rossi.

It's going to be important for the Yellow Submarine to play well and score in this first leg. Last year, Villarreal went out to German opposition (Wolfsburg) in the round of 32, though with Garrido just having taken over the coaching reins and Cazorla and Rossi unavailable, Gonzalo and Musacchio are probably right to downplay the importance of that result in predicting what will happen against Leverkusen. It will be a cool evening at the BayArena, but the football promises to warm things up considerably. Maintain focus, boys, and take the first step toward the quarterfinals. Endavant Villarreal!!