Bayer Leverkusen and FC Zurich entered Group A of the UEFA Europa League both with realistic ambitions of achieving qualification. For the Germans, it is a necessity while for Zurich, it was more hope that they could do so in a section that includes two other similar and tricky teams in Ludogorets Razgrad and AEK Larnaca.
Leverkusen, after suffering their first defeat of the group in Switzerland two weeks ago, are not only out for revenge but also to ensure their qualification hopes are not derailed any further at a fervent Bay Arena on Thursday evening.
Der Stadtclub shocker
Zurich welcomed Bayer Leverkusen to the Letzigrund two weeks ago flying high in the league and also in Europe. They, like their German counterparts, had won their opening two games. First, they saw off AEK Larnaca in their Cypriot home at the GSP, a highly impressive result considering the Kitrinoprasinoi (Green-yellows) had lost just one of their previous nine European matches on home soil.
Second, the Swiss dug in to see off a dangerous and seasoned Ludogorets side from Bulgaria that are accustomed to causing Swiss sides problems now and again, just ask FC Basel. Their 100% record going into Matchday three was certainly a surprise but a welcome one that gave plenty of confidence ahead of the reunion with the Bundesliga giants for the first time since 2007.
Many believed, despite the shaky domestic form of Leverkusen, that Zurich could, at best, escape the Letzigrund with a point. This, given their opposition, are the top seeds in the group, would've been a fantastic result and yet still set them up nicely for a really good crack at qualification. To win, well, that was shocking indeed.
It, perhaps, shouldn't be surprising. After all, Zurich have lost just one of their last ten in Europe at home and have saw off the likes of Villarreal, also taking points from another German side in Borussia Monchengladbach in years gone by. The match two weeks ago on Matchday three provided plenty of entertainment and a fantastic comeback from Zurich after throwing away a one goal lead. It demonstrated a real fighting spirit and desire that may just be enough to see them into the last 32.
Are you not entertained?
These two sides, inconsistent form aside, have one constant and one thing in common over the last few weeks. They simply can't stop scoring or conceding goals. If you want to ensure your monies worth when buying a ticket for a game of football then simply settle down in either of these two cities and watch the net bulge time and again.
This may be entertaining for the fans but for the clubs, this is far from ideal. Leverkusen have already shipped 26 goals in 14 games across all competitions while also scoring 31 of their own. It has made for a simply unpredictable season so far for Die Werkself. Almost like a movie, they are all action and excitement in attack but in defence it is a comedy at times.
Nothing illustrates that better than the fact that Leverkusen returned from Zurich back to domestic duties with a mean streak, sending six past Werder Bremen away from home before managing another five, this time without reply, away at one of the most difficult venues in Germany against Gladbach. They then followed this up at the weekend, inexplicably, with a 4-1 home thrashing at the hands of Hoffenheim.
Zurich are not much better. They began the season with a solid defence that conceded ten goals in fourteen games, four of which came away at Young Boys. Their defence was pretty solid until a trip to the Stockhorn Arena to play FC Thun in early October saw them draw 2-2 before following it up with another twelve goals conceded in their next five games.
They've also scored plenty in all of them, sixteen to be exact and they've only failed to score more than two goals in one game during that run, which came away at St. Gallen, their first loss in the league since their defeat to Lugano on September 1st.
So, it is safe to say that neither side are in pitch-perfect condition ahead of Matchday four. Both sides have suffered defeats and both have scored and conceded a huge quantity of goals that suggests Thursday night will probably be just as unpredictable as the two participants, but will have plenty of goals for the paying audience nonetheless.
Zurich have no fresh injury concerns ahead of the match with all the players available from two weeks ago.
Stephen Odey and Benjamin Kololli remain threats in the Zurich line-up and both have been among the goals since Matchday three.
Youngster Tomi Domgjoni is another to watch. He has been one of the more impressive performers in recent weeks for the Super League side.
Leverkusen had the luxury of a full-strength side for the first meeting between these sides but look to be without Karim Bellarabi, who has scored five goals in the last three games and also Sven Bender who is unlikely to be risked either.
Kevin Volland, Julian Brandt and Kai Havertz have helped themselves to two goals apiece and will bolster an already potent frontline for the Germans.
What they said
These two sides meet again on Matchday 4 and will have learned much about the other ahead of the latest encounter.
FCZ manager, Ludovic Magnin, has stressed to fcz.ch that his side know what can be achieved after their first leg victory: "The home win against Leverkusen has made my team aware of what can be achieved if we work as a team and show character."
Magnin, however, was under no illusions of the difficulty of this next encounter with the Bundesliga side: "We are not naive. We are expecting a very difficult match against a very strong side in Leverkusen."
Leverkusen boss, Heiko Herrlich, spoke in his pre-match conference, recognizing the poor performance in the reverse fixture and reiterating a desire to win this time around:
"We want to win the home game against Zurich tomorrow. Two weeks ago, we did not play a good match in Zurich and we just have to do better at home ... we've conceded way too many goals this season, and easy ones too. Our aim must be to concede less goals and be more stable defensively. That's what we're asking of ourselves."
Both managers come into the game confident. Magnin feels he can replicate the win for Matchday three while Herrlich believes his side will right the wrongs of their Letzigrund defeat.
The pressure though falls solely on the Germans, who need to win to prevent more questions being asked of their manager and the squad while Zurich's win at home gives them some breathing space. They'll simply hope they can upset Leverkusen again and take something on the flight home.