An exciting opening round of the 2020/21 UEFA Champions' League stands complete.
For two German Bundesliga clubs, however, the 2020/21 European journey is yet to begin. Having already provided in-depth analysis of all four UCL Groups featuring top-flight German sides here at Bulinews, it's time to take a look at the Europa League.
First up, it's Germany's red company team.
|Kasper Dolberg (middle).||Photo: Femke Kruize, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0|
Peter Bosz's Werkself look to have their work cut out for them. Many in football punditry circles pick the German team to top the group here. It shall nevertheless prove a tough go for Germany's red company team, slow to start the season after a botched transfer window and a critical injury that leaves their defensive corps.
A very different Leverkusen side recently attained the quarterfinals of the 2019/20 Europa League. A third place finish in their 2019/20 UCL group placed the team in the UEL knockout phase, where they sailed past opponents S.C. Braga and Glasgow Rangers in the rounds of 32 and 16.
The side that memorably dominated Glasgow 4-1 before a full capacity crowd at the Ibrox stadium last spring bears little resemblance to the current incarnation. For that matter, the in-form Leverkusen that put together an exceptionally strong second half of the 2019/20 campaign differed greatly from the languid jumbled mess that sat in 10th place in the table in November 2019.
It took some time for Bosz's squad to get organized last year. This time, die Werkself are off to another sluggish start. Leverkusen drew their first three fixtures of the season, have only scored three goals, and looked far from convincing in a 1-0 weekend win over lowly Mainz.
Though it counts for little, this particular German club historically performs much better in the Europa League. At the top tier of European club competition, Leverkusen have won less than one third of their matches and not progressed beyond the Round-of-16 in twenty years.
Down in the UEL they've won nearly half their fixtures and topped their group the last two times they've entered the competition from the beginning.
In order for our readers to get a better understanding of Leverkusen's upcoming opponents, we have put together a profile of each club they will face. We look at their strengths & weaknesses, key player and where they will finish come Matchday 6 on the 10th of December.
OGC Nice (France)
It all begins with a highly intriguing fixture on Thursday. Bayer square off against a very formidable opponent, unfortunately without supporters to assist them, at the BayArena. This should prove a genuinely fun match.
For their part, Les Aiglons have steadily improved under the aegis of French legend Patrick Viera the past two years. Since the former Arsenal man took the coaching reins from current Dortmund trainer Lucien Favre in 2018, the team engineered improved table finishes in both seasons.
A fifth place finish (aided by the PPG formula) when Ligue 1 cancelled its 2019/20 campaign translates to a return to Europe after a two-year absence. They last qualified for the Champions League under Favre after the 2016/17 season.
Matchday 1 10/22/2020 (A) vs. Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Matchday 5 12/3/2020 (H) vs. Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Viera wasted little time in aggressively imprinting this team with an aggressive flair reminiscent of his distinctive playing style. At present, the Frenchman tends to favor either an up-tempo 3-4-3 or a 4-4-1-1. The common denominator in all constellations remains buccaneering defensive stalwart Dante Bonfirm Costas Santos (simply "Dante" in his chosen handle).
German football fans know the 37-year-old center half quite well from his three seasons with Borussia Mönchengladbach and subsequent three years spent playing for FC Bayern München. He's an astounding box-to-box player with a demonstrated penchant for picking defensive locks. Even at his advanced age, he's scored twice in seven matches thus far in Ligue 1.
With Dante running pivot out of the back, Nice have only lost once thus far this season. A recent 3-1 demolition of St. Etienne demonstrated how the team can put opponents behind early with a fast-paced wide distribution strategy. A young cadre of four attackers all under the age of 23 have seven goals among them in the young campaign.
Twenty-one-year-old Myziane Maolida is off to a ferocious start this season. Another young phenom, Khephran Thuram, operates on the precipice of as breakthrough year. For those wondering, the latter is in fact the son of Lilian and younger brother of Marcus in the über-talented football family.
There are so many offensive threats available to exploit Bayer's unstable fullbacks. Moreover, a 4-4-1-1 is just the type of shape to disrupt Bosz's preferred possession game.
All of that being said, the club Germans refer to as "Nizza" will have to do without one of their most potent weapons in the opening stages of the competition. An sprained ankle looks to sideline 23-year-old Kasper Dolberg for a couple of weeks. We'll discuss him in greater depth below. For now it suffices to say that the injury constitutes a huge loss.
As pertains to Leverkusen's specific chances against Vierra's tactics, one must concede that Bosz's version of Dutch "totalvoetbal" can prove very effective against clubs overly reliant on a centralized distribution. Bosz retains a talented center-back duo of his own in Sven Bender and Edmond Tapsoba.
Bosz can even run his own 3-4-3 as he did so successfully in the second-half of last season and in his Europa League romps. That particular system didn't rely much on Kai Havertz and brought out the best in lead striker Lucas Alario, whom he still has.
Though it may not be readily apparent, die Werkself still have a slightly better team on paper.
Key Player: Kasper Dolberg
If you haven't already, get familiar with the name. Easily the best non-goalkeeping talent to come out of Denmark in twenty years. His basic tool set exceeds that of Christian Eriksen in that he's significantly faster and more much explosive on rushes. The 23-year-old knocked home 11 goals for Nice in last year's aborted campaign and has tallied twice thus far this season.
A light injury isn't likely to keep him off the pitch for long. He's been especially devastating since Vierra began buttressing him with fellow rising youngster Amine Gouiri on the left flank. The fate of this team hinges on big performances from Dolberg in the group stage matches.
Were it not for the untimely loss, the Maritime Alpers might have been projected to win this group.
Verdict: 2nd place
Slavia Prague (Czech Republic)
Like Leverkusen, the Sesivani accept a slight demotion this year after playing in the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League last season. German football fans got a good scout of Jindrich Trpisovsky's squad in that tournament as they were drawn in Borussia Dortmund's group. An Achraf Hakimi brace saw the BVB best them in the first encounter while Julian Brandt and Jadon Sancho ensured the BVB's passage through to the knockouts via a 2-1 victory in the reverse fixture.
Slavia had a rather inconsistent campaign last year. At first they pummeled their opponents with a finely tuned offensive engine to claim a lofty perch at the top of the Czech table. They then cooled off a bit and lost significant ground after failing to attain victories against Fortuna Liga Rivals Bohemians Prague and Sparta Prague. A draw against the latter and upset loss to FC Slovako in the penultimate week before global lockdown threatened to sink their season.
An undefeated run after the corona-break ensured that the Sesivani captured their second consecutive, and sixth overall, Czech league title. Unfortunately, Slavia couldn't secure a place in the Champions' League this year as they were defeated by Danish club FC Midtjylland in the qualifying playoff.
Matchday 2 10/22/2020 (H) vs. Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Matchday 6 12/10/2020 (A) vs. Bayer 04 Leverkusen
The club is off to a fantastic domestic league start this season behind Trpisovsky's strong midfield. Cote d'Ivoire's Ibrahim Traoré--not to be confused with Gladbach's Guinean "Ibrahima Traoré"--often runs an attacking 4-4-2 together with Romanian axial partner Nicolae Stanciu. The started nearly every match last season and combined for seven goals across all competitions.
Slavia's strong run down the season's stretch had much to do with the return of Croatian striker Petar Musa, who had been on loan to Slovan Liberec for two seasons. Musa scored seven goals in the season after returning to his parent club. His seven goals over the first half left him tied with Libor Kozak of rivals Sparta for the league's golden boot.
Musa, Stanciu, and Traoré are all off to strong starts this campaign. Nine other players have chipped in with goals to help the currently second-placed club in the table lead the league in goal differential (+19).
With the exception of Musa, the squad hasn't undergone significant personnel changes since this German writer last gave them close scrutiny in December of 2019. Bosz will surely have ready access to the tape of that fixture, in which Dortmund tore apart a much stronger midfield that then featured current West Ham DM Thomas Soucek.
The key victory there was running a flexible 3-3-4 that switched into a 3-4-3 diamond with a ramrod spine off the ball. Bosz can construct one of these using Charles Aranguiz, Julian Baumgartlinger, or even Exequiel Palacios positioned just ahead of the defensive line.
One mustn't forget the talent deficit here. Leverkusen may have a deficient squad by Bundesliga standards, but it remains deep enough to best a team like this.
Key Player: Nicolae Stanciu
International football lovers may recall Stanciu as the anointed talisman heading into Romania's ill-fated 2016 European Championship campaign. The then 23-year-old Stanciu carried much of his national team's hopes having scored four goals in only five caps. His blistering form regrettably couldn't be carried over to the tournament. Just as they did in Euro 2008, Romania floundered in the tournament's "Group of Death".
Since then, Stanciu put together a respectable season for Belgium side Anderlecht before losing out on playing time under a new coach. He played for Prague rivals Sparta for two seasons before bouncing around a bit and eventually settling back in the Czech Republic. Since arriving at Slavia, he's revived his career somewhat in his natural no. 10 role.
A two-goal campaign thus far has seen him score twice in the opening six fixtures. One of Romania's most promising talents finally appears to be fulfilling his potential at the age of 27.
Verdict: 3rd place
Hapoel Be'er Sheva FC (Israel)
There's a slight chance Peter Bosz should absolutely recall this club from the half-season he spent coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2016. In point of fact his favored yellows actually ceded the title to the upstart HBS that year. That was the season Be'er Sheva officially returned to the top, claiming its first Israeli League title in 40 years.
Believe it or not, there does exist some connection between German and Israeli football as some of the left-ward leaning West German ultra societies maintain links with Israeli groups of similar or neutral political bents. The proudly neutral supporters of this club enjoy respect in some German fan circles.
The club qualifies for Europe for the first time since the 2017/18 campaign. The qualifying road for this year's UEL was as impressive as it was improbable. HBS progressed through all the rounds, upsetting both Albanian side KF Laci and Scottish side Motherwell along the non-champions path. They then took out Viktoria Plzen in the playoff.
After so much hard work, the club will hardly consider itself a doormat.
Matchday 3 11/5/2020 (H) vs. Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Matchday 4 11/26/2020 (A) vs. Bayer 04 Leverkusen
There are some faintly recognizable names on this squad. Former Porto product Josué Filippe Soares scored most of the team's goals in qualifying, albeit from the penalty spot. Sintayehu Sallilich, a Jewish Ethiopian emigre, is a Ligat Ha'al veteran who has scored 43 league goals over a storied career. Twenty-nine-year old domestic league vet Marwan Kabha works in defensive midfield.
The team has been rebuilt over the most recent offseason, with Sallilich's serving as the prize acquisition. Nine new players were signed in the short summer break. The club also brought in two Argentines from Racing Club to bolster its ranks. The unlikely UEL qualification of a club that finished fourth in the 2019/20 Israeli Premiership suggests that the re-tool has worked out rather well.
Beyond the obvious talent gap, the team has been unable to play regularly recently. Rising COVID infection rates in Israel have hampered the Israeli FA's efforts to get the new season underway. The last three rounds have been postponed with make-up dates not yet scheduled.
Whether this counts as an advantage or disadvantage for the club can be debated, but it should be considered highly unlikely that an unpracticed team can expect to find its form under such circumstances.
Key Player: Miguel Vitor
The 31-year-old Portuguese captain once starred for PAOK Athens before moving to the Israeli midlands. He arrived in 2016 and has donned the skipper's armband for the past three seasons.
An integral part of the squads most recent title runs in 2017 and 2018, he'll serve as the one to watch when die Werkself first face the group underdogs. A stabilizing force in defense accords every long shot a chance on any given day.
Verdict: 4th place
Group C Table Projection
Pulling it all together, we'll employ a safe tip here. This group should shake out exactly as expected. Leverkusen overcome their notable deficiencies to top their third straight Europa League group.
- Bayer 04 Leverkusen
- OGC Nice
- Slavia Prague
- Hapoel Be'er Sheva