Paris Saint-Germain will perhaps breathe a sigh of relief at having drawn Bayer Leverkusen instead of the likes of Manchester City or Arsenal in the Champions league round of 16. However, their pairing against the Germans is certainly not as straightforward as it looks on paper.
Sami Hyypia’s side currently sit second in the German Bundesliga and, despite Sunday’s surprise 1-0 defeat at home to Eintracht Frankfurt, are five points clear of last year’s Champions League runners-up Borussia Dortmund.
It was only Bayer’s third domestic defeat of the campaign, whereas PSG have only lost once in Ligue 1, but the alternatives were worse in all fairness. In facing the Germans, Laurent Blanc’s side avoid some of the trickier potential ties and should not be too severely affected by the weather in Germany come February.
Leverkusen finished second in Group A, four points behind group winners Manchester United, but just two points ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk. Their passage was assured by last Tuesday’s narrow 1-0 win away at Real Sociedad.
Leverkusen director Michael Schade admitted that, for the Bundesliga side, PSG is not the most favourable of draws. Moments after the event he revealed (h/t PSG.fr translated from French as a bilingual):
"For the fans, it is very exciting to play in Paris. It is a beautiful city. They have players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva, very well known players. We are outsiders, but we were just happy to be in the draw. PSG will be difficult, but this is the top level of European football."
PSG coach Blanc was particularly happy to have avoided Manchester City and Arsenal, two of the bigger names in the draw (h/t PSG.fr):
"We have avoided Manchester City and Arsenal, the two toughest possible teams in the draw for us. All matches are difficult in this competition, especially in the knockout round."
Adrien Rabiot was also pleased with the result (h/t PSG.fr):
"This is a good draw I think, it could have been more complicated. Every team has the same desire at this stage of the competition and that is to reach the quarterfinals. My teammates were pleased with the draw too."
In PSG’s favour will be the fact that Leverkusen will play at home first, with the French champions no doubt confident that they can see off the surprise 2002 edition finalists. Of course the Germans will be a familiar name to the French who will recall Zinedine Zidane’s sublime match-winning strike for Real Madrid in that 2002 final at Hampden Park that finished 2-1.
This Leverkusen team will be no walkover though and Hyypia’s side boast a number of talented players, particularly in their German contingent.
Stefan Kiessling will be the main man for PSG to keep an eye on at the BayArena and then back home at the Parc des Princes. The German international has scored just twice in six games on the European stage this term, but has nine goals from 15 starts domestically and has provided a further four.
The 29-year-old has netted 120 Bundesliga goals in his time with Leverkusen and former club FC Nurnberg and is currently sixth in the German top-flight’s list of goal scorers this year. He only trails leader Robert Lewandowski of Borussia Dortmund by two, but has only scored once from the penalty spot compared to the Pole’s three.
Sidney Sam is not far behind him in terms of his importance goals-wise; the German international has scored seven times in just 12 starts and has laid on five assists.
Heung-Min Son is another attacking talent capable of scoring prolifically, the South Korean international has scored seven times and provided another two in 12 league starts since his summer move from Hamburger SV.
Another important player for Hyypia’s team is captain Simon Rolfes who, despite being a combative midfielder, is actually their top scorer so far this Champions League campaign with three goals in six games.
The 31-year-old German international is an influential figure in this Leverkusen side and his and Lars Bender’s battle against the likes of Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi will make for entertaining viewing.
In PSG’s favour though, Leverkusen are unlikely to strike fear into the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani or Thiago Silva. The Swede top-scored for the French champions in the group stages with eight and has scored against each of the German sides he has faced.
Cavani, who scored four times in five games in the group stages, has also netted more times than any Leverkusen player and Marquinhos and Motta’s doubles make PSG one of the highest scoring teams in the competition so far.
Also to be taken into account, German sides enjoy a much longer winter break than most of their European rivals and Bayer have a busy schedule ahead of them at the start of 2014.
Hyypia’s side will play three games inside of seven days in the week before they host PSG on Tuesday February 18 at BayArena. In addition to a difficult league encounter with Schalke 04 the weekend before the opening leg, they face second division side Kaiserslautern in the German Cup just days before.
Perhaps the saving grace for Leverkusen is that all of these matches will be played at home. However, PSG’s fixtures at that time are relatively easy in comparison.
The weekend that Bayer face Schalke and will be under duress to not field a weakened side and lose ground in the Bundesliga. However, the Ligue 1 champions host struggling Valenciennes at the Parc des Princes and will be able to make a string of changes with Toulouse away, not exactly a daunting task, to follow.
Leverkusen are by no means an “easy” draw for PSG, but there can be no denying that this pairing certainly favours the side from the French capital. However, there is a danger that complacency will play a part and Blanc’s side will underestimate Bayer, who are part of a four-strong contingent from the currently thriving Bundesliga.
Hyypia’s men are a cut above the Parisians’ group stage opponents this year and very similar, in terms of reputation, to last term’s opponents at this stage Valencia CF. But PSG have matured greatly since last year and this team is arguably better equipped for a title tilt this time than they were under Carlo Ancelotti.
Blanc’s reputation in the Champions League is excellent and he possesses one of the most talented starting XIs and deepest squads on the continent. Although Leverkusen may push PSG close in the first leg, it is hard to see past the French side over the two fixtures.
PSG to advance.