Fresh from their convincing 3-1 victory in the FC Augsburg on Friday evening, Roger Schmidt's Bayer Leverkusen welcome Spanish giants Atlético Madrid to the BayArena for the first leg of their last 16 Champions League clash.
Memories will immediately turn to this stage of the competition two years ago, where the German and Spanish sides also met. On that occasion, it was the Rojiblancos that came out on top after a particularly close penalty shoot-out at the Vicente Calderón. Hakan Çalhanoğlu gave the Werkself a one goal advantage with a stunning strike during the first leg in Germany, before a Mario Suárez strike sent the game in Spain to penalties.
Tuesday evening's game comes at perhaps the best time for the Werkself, who have just come into a fine vein of form. After some speculation into Schmidt's future with the club, Leverkusen have responded by dispatching Eintracht Frankfurt and the aforementioned Augsburg with relative ease. The return to form of star striker Javier Hernández, who has four goals in those victories, will also prove a welcome sight for the Werkself's Austrian coach. Of course, the absence of the Leverkusen goalscorer the last time the sides met, Çalhanoğlu, who is serving a four-month ban due to a contract incident whilst at Karlsruher SC, will serve a tremendous blow for the German side.
The victory in Bavaria against Augsburg did not symbolise just three points however, but also created a unique piece of Bundesliga history, as Karim Bellarabi's twenty-third minute opener marked the 50,000 since the league's creation in 1963. The first of those scored by Borussia Dortmund's Friedheim Koneitzka in a victory against Werder Bremen.
Diego Simeone's Atlético Madrid travel to North-Rhine Westphalia also buoyed by a recent upturn in form. Victories over Sporting Gijón, Celta Vigo and CD Leganes have seen the Rojiblancos return to the Champions League spots, whilst Kevin Gamiero has also found the form that earned him a move to Madrid from Sevilla over the summer with a hat-trick in this weekend's victory in Asturias.
However, it still remains that the Rojiblancos are a shadow of the side that stole the La Liga title away from Real Madrid and Barcelona in 2014 and also made it to the Champions League final the same year, as well as more lately in last season's variant of the competition where they were defeated in Milan by arch rivals Real. Simeone's side sit in 4th place in La Liga, some seven points off top spot, though it isn't surprising considering the vast influx of new players, such as Nico Gaitán and the aforementioned Gamiero. Though with talent like Antoine Griezmann, Atlético Madrid will always provide a stern challenge to Europe's best sides.
An interesting clash in Leverkusen
On Monday afternoon, Schmidt expressed his thoughts in the usual press conference prior to this last 16 clash. The Austrian immediately turned his attentions to that memorable clash between the Werkself and Atlético Madrid two years ago, which marked the joint furthest Leverkusen have got in the competition since they reached the final in 2002; only to be defeated by Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane's infamous strike at Hampden Park, Glasgow.
Regarding the 2015 tie, Roger Schmidt stated, "Two years ago, it was very close and we have seen that we can play against a top team at that level." The Werkself coach was clearly confident, given his side have shown they can beat the very best sides already this season - with the defeat of Tottenham Hotspurs away at Wembley in their Champions League Group E clash back in November perhaps the best example.
The Austrian and former Red Bull Salzburg manager, also reflected the exuberant mood his side currently find themselves in. "I've seen all their [his players] smiling faces. We're going into the match with confidence, conviction and joy!" Schmidt said.
Meanwhile, the Argentine head-coach of the Rojiblancos, Simeone, was in no mood to understimate the side his Atlético Madrid team were faced with. "We are going to find a team that deploys everything their coach asks: heart, enthusiasm, intention and a lot of intensity. They are probably one of the most intense rivals we have played in the Champions League," Diego Simeone declared before adding, "Talent is important, but heart and willingness have a big place in football."
Known as a perfectionist, Simeone also spoke regarding his own sides recent upturn in form, "I think that the team has grown in this beginning of 2017 compared with the end of 2016. I consider that still we have a large margin of improvement and hopefully we can reach it."
Simeone will have to do without a number of usual faces however, when his side travel to the BayArena. Long term absentees Jan Oblak, Tiago and Augusto Fernández have been more recently joined by Diego Godin and Juanfran for the Rojiblancos who may have to field a makeshift side in North-Rhine Westphalia. Roger Schmidt will also have to contend with injuries, with the aforementioned Çalhanoğlu as well Jonathan Tah and Lars Bender absent for the Werkself.