PSG avoid big names but Leverkusen no walkovers

Posted by Jonathan Johnson

John Berry/Getty ImagesLaurent Blanc's PSG face Bayer Leverkusen for the first time ever when the two sides meet in the Champions League round of 16.

Paris Saint-Germain managed to stay away from the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal in Monday's Champions League last 16 draw. But in Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, the French champions have been paired with a tougher team than what most believe. Currently second in the German top-flight and five points clear of third-placed Borussia Dortmund who were finalists last year, Sami Hyypia's men will provide PSG with their toughest test so far in a competition that has been favourable towards the Ligue 1 side.

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Despite not getting the likes of an AC Milan who would arguably have been the ideal opponent, Leverkusen give Laurent Blanc's side the step up in quality that they need coming out of Group C. Avoiding the likes of Zenit St. Petersburg, the easiest of the potential draws but with the most inclement weather at that time of year, and Galatasaray -- who profited against Juventus more because of the awful state of their pitch than anything else -- was important. However, steering clear of the plum ties such as Manchester City vs. Barcelona and Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich is also a blessing.

Leverkusen are in the middle band of teams and, at this stage of the competition, are among the best possible opponents for PSG. The Germans will force Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, Thiago Silva and teammates to raise their game, but they also won’t turn the round of 16 tie into an immediate life or death situation in the same way that City or Arsenal would have done.

Perhaps the fixture does lack some zest and pizzazz in terms of attractiveness though, and that is why I'd reason that Milan were the ideal draw instead of Bayer. Not only would it have been a major name that boasts plenty of glitz and glamour, it would also have been an ultimately winnable game because of the Italians' current state on the pitch. Champions League-winning pedigree with some remaining star names would have been supplied, but Milan are not the team they once were and PSG would have fancied their Serie A imports to wreak havoc on a creaky defence.

That is no disrespect to Leverkusen though; in many ways they will be more testing opponents than Milan would have been. They are in the last 16 on merit, finishing second in Group A behind Manchester United, but ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad who dumped out Ligue 1 rivals Olympique Lyonnais in the qualifiers. Bayer also -- despite Sunday's 1-0 home defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt -- have only lost three times in the Bundesliga all season and are playing some excellent football under Hyypia. They may trail Pep Guardiola's Bayern by seven points, but that says more about the current European champions than it does about Leverkusen.

In Bayer, the likes of Stefan Kiessling, Sidney Sam, Lars Bender, Simon Rolfes and Heung-Min Son are all players that will need to be watched carefully. Kiessling, Sam, Bender and Rolfes are all German internationals and make up part of the domestic spine of Hyypia's current side. The South Korean international Son is a vibrant young attacking talent and between them, Son, Kiessling and Sam pose a considerable goal threat, while a familiar face in Emir Spahic (formerly of Ligue 1's Montpellier HSC) marshals the defence.

Leverkusen's back line has struggled in Europe though; they shipped 10 goals in six Group A matches, yet have only conceded 15 times all season in the Bundesliga. PSG's attacking talents of Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura will relish those sorts of statistics. The midfield battle between the likes of Bender, Rolfes and emerging talent Emre Can for the Germans against the Parisian trio of Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti will also be fun to watch.

Starting in the BayArena on February 18, PSG will fancy their chances over the two legs, particularly because they start away from home. Bayer's schedule in the lead-up to the clash is also not ideal; the team return from the winter break and host a German Cup clash with Kaiserslautern and a Bundesliga encounter with fellow Champions League representatives Schalke 04 inside of seven days that also include the Ligue 1 giants' visit.

It is a similar draw to last year's at this same stage when PSG were paired with Valencia CF after coming out of another favourable group that they won. Both the Spaniards and Leverkusen are former finalists, Bayer in 2002 when Zinedine Zidane inspired Real Madrid to a 2-1 victory at Hampden Park, and both sides are of a similar stature on the European stage.

They are not the biggest of the opponents that were available, but they have plenty of experience at this level and generally fare well against French sides. Leverkusen have only lost once at home to a French team, while PSG also fare well against German opposition, winning six of their 11 encounters. Reflecting upon last year's two-legged affair against Valencia that Carlo Ancelotti's Ligue 1 winners only emerged from with a narrow 3-2 aggregate win, this sort of tie will not be as straightforward as it looks on paper.

However, it is the first time that these two sides have met so there will be a slight novelty factor involved and no historical form to base predictions on. Blanc was grateful to have been spared the task of facing Manchester City or Arsenal, branding them "the two toughest possible opponents," while Leverkusen director Michael Schade insists that his side are "just happy to be in the draw."

PSG could have perhaps done with another big European night similar to last season's quarterfinals against Barcelona to whet their appetite for further success this year. It would have ensured that they are at their optimum level immediately and it would have re-established a hunger that had waned slightly by the end of a tedious group stage.

However, Leverkusen present the French champions with more of a challenge than Olympiakos, Benfica and Anderlecht did. They also provide an excellent opportunity to at least equal last year's final eight finish and the capital club will certainly expect to still be in the competition come March.


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