Andrew Flint –
Bayer Leverkusen vs Krasnodar – Thursday, February 21, 20:00 GMT/21:00 CET – BayAerna, Leverkusen – Germany
Peter Bosz and the Nearly Men of Neverkusen; not the strangest tribute band around, but potentially a tag that will stick if Bayer fail to edge into the Champions League next season. It will be an incredibly tall order with the quality of the sides ahead of them, but in light of their electric current form, there is at least a huge amount of optimism around the BayArena. Few clubs can boast the pure, visceral attacking hedonism of Julian Brandt, Leon Bailey, Karim Bellarabi and Kai Havertz in full flow. As unlikely as some pre-season predictions in the media of a potential title challenge may be, or even of a crucial top-four finish, their blistering domestic form of late (13 goals in four consecutive wins) will have given their rivals plenty of food for thought.
In front of a bustling crowd at Stadion Krasnodar last week, a full-strength side dominated proceedings for the most part but couldn’t quite find the clinical edge they needed to score. Krasnodar’s stubbornness will not cause any undue alarm just yet, although as always the lack of an away goal will need to be blocked out by early tangible reward for Leverkusen’s expected dominance in possession. Bellarabi’s injury is a blow, especially given the likelihood of their visitors sitting deep to soak up the pressure, but only a fool would bet against them scoring.
Previous European campaigns have seen Leverkusen fall short agonisingly, hence their disparaging Neverkusen nickname. The great side of Michael Ballack, Lucio, Oliver Neuville and Ze Roberto came within a Zinedine Zidane-inspired Real Madrid of shocking the continent in 2002 but soon saw the side disintegrate as the likes of Chelsea and Bayern Munich gobbled up the fragments. To fail to win the Europa League would not go down as a catastrophic failure, but to not put up a wildly entertaining fight would be.
Steady progress may seem an anomaly when referring to Krasnodar when one considers their explosive rise from nothing to seasoned continental campaigners in less than a decade, but it could be used to describe their development in other ways. Fyodor Smolov spearheaded a bold attempt to go toe to toe with Borussia Dortmund in 2015, but then a brave but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to return with any group-stage points was met with satisfaction.
Now, after regular incursions into the Europa League, another plucky defeat will be met with considerably less acceptance by the reclusive billionaire owner Sergey Galitskiy. He has not ploughed endless resources into one of the finest academies, training facilities, stadium and development networks in the world to simply continue being the bridesmaids. Sensible signings and the continued trend of progressing youth products into the first team has seen the departure of Smolov, a previously unthinkable prospect, become an almost unnoticeable change. This is the kind of progress that Krasnodar have been built around.
Yuiry Gazinsky’s availability is a big plus for Murad Musaev’s side. Although considered a defensive presence anchoring the three-man midfield, he has added a more creative string to his bow this season by threading more forward passes into the final third than before. The conundrum is simple but complicated; how ambitious are Krasnodar prepared to be? Attack too much too early, and Leverkusen could pick them apart at ease. Sit back too much, and risk one of the most in-form attacking sides in Europe to do what they do best. Nobody will give Krasnodar a chance, but if there’s anything they specialise in, it’s ambition.
Bayer Leverkusen vs Krasnodar – Players to Watch
Julian Brandt #10 – Bayer Leverkusen
It is remarkable to think that Brandt is still only 22 years old given the enormous interest in him, and yet he remains a fulcrum of Leverkusen’s attacking structure. Naturally a left winger, in recent games he has been deployed as a number eight in midfield. His qualities as a wide player have been used to blistering effect in his new role. “You know Julian is a pacey player; he can score, he can give assists,” said Leon Bailey of his teammate after the thrashing of Mainz at the weekend. “He is a great player,” added Bosz. “He needs to have the ball, he rarely loses the ball.” If Krasnodar want to stifle their illustrious hosts, suffocating Brandt would be a great place to start.
Charles Kaboré #77 – Krasnodar
Although Yuriy Gazinsky will almost certainly return to the starting lineup after serving a suspension, Kaboré will be tasked with anchoring the midfield. He has an abundance of technically gifted players around him who are more than adept at distributing the ball in attacking transitions such as Mauricio Pereyra and Viktor Claesson, so his task is simple; disrupt Leverkusen counter-attacks, and feed his teammates. The problem is his task is as tough as it is simple given the quality of the opposition. Rarely has he faced anything near the speed and intelligence of Leverkusen’s attacking lineup in Russian football. If he can offer some semblance of calm Krasnodar can hope to breathe.
Bayer Leverkusen vs Krasnodar – Match Stats
- Kai Havertz has scored five goals in his last seven competitive matches
- Leverkusen are unbeaten in their last six matches against Russian opposition
- In the 10 matches in Europe when they have drawn the first leg away from home, Leverkusen have gone through in eight of them
- Krasnodar have lost their last three matches in Germany, and five of their overall seven against German clubs
- The Bulls lost two of their three away games this season in the Europa League
- While they have won exactly one away game in each of their European campaigns to date including this one, they have never won away from home in the knockout stages (D1, L2)
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Bayer Leverkusen vs Krasnodar – 3-1
Bayer Leverkusen vs Krasnodar – Possible Lineups
Hradecky – Wendell, Dragović, Tah, Weiser – Brandt, Aránguiz, Havertz – Bailey, Volland, Alario
Coach: Peter Bosz
Kritsyuk – Petrov, Martynovich, Spajic, Stotskiy – Kaboré, Gazinsky, Pereyra – Wanderson, Ignatyev, Claesson
Manager: Murad Musaev
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.