Two seasons ago, Bayer Leverkusen took Atletico Madrid to a penalty shootout in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League, before the club from the Spanish capital ultimately prevailed. This year, fate has brought together the two teams at the same stage again.
But judging from this Tuesday’s first leg in Germany, Atletico should have a significantly easier path to the quarterfinals of Europe’s elite club competition on this occasion.
The Werkself used its home field advantage to play brave, offensive soccer. That created a match that was easy on the eye to neutrals, but unfortunately for the German team, it also played into the hands of Diego Simeone’s game plan for Atletico.
The runners-up of last season’s Champions League played an uncharacteristically attacking style themselves and punished Leverkusen’s at times nonexistent defending.
Just over 15 minutes into the game, Saul Niguez put the visitors ahead with a beautiful volley into the top corner.
While Bayer Leverkusen pushed forward, looking for a quick response, it was the Madrid-based team that doubled its lead with less than half an hour played, though Antoine Griezmann. 2-0 was also the halftime score.
Very early in the second half, Bayer gave itself a lifeline: Karim Bellarabi, the scorer of the historic 50,000th goal in Bundesliga history on Friday, struck again, by successfully finishing a play that he himself had started.
A penalty for the visitors restored their two-goal lead, as Aleksandar Dragovic fouled Kevin Gameiro and the latter coolly converted. To make things worse for Leverkusen, the foul actually took place outside the penalty area and thus a free-kick would have been the correct decision.
Yet, none of this weakened the home team’s resolve. Less than ten minutes after that goal, a sharp cross by Julian Brandt was pushed onto Stefan Savic’s knee by his goalkeeper and the ball went in from there, 3-2!
What followed were minutes of Bayer Leverkusen power play, that included several missed opportunities for the hosts. But instead of the equalizer, the last goal made it 4-2, via a Fernando Torres header from close range.
This result puts the Bundesliga team into an almost impossible situation in the second leg in Spain in three weeks.