Andrew Flint –
Lokomotiv Moscow vs Leverkusen – Tuesday, November 26, 17:55 GMT/18:55 CET – RZD Arena, Moscow – Russia
So close, and yet so far. When set in contrast to last season’s sluggish, unimaginative and feeble Champions League campaign, this group stage has been a breath of fresh air for Lokomotiv Moscow in terms of performance. Taking the lead in Turin against the omnipotent Old Lady and controlling large portions of the return in a chilly Moscow before a sublime added time solo goal from Douglas Costa sent a real message to the supposed powerbrokers of Group D. Opening up with an unexpected win away to Bayer Leverkusen set the tone for a more positive season. And yet Yuriy Semin’s men came away from their Juventus doubleheader with nothing, and remain on just three points after four games.
There is huge encouragement to be taken from the manner in which they have taken the game to their far more seasoned European opponents, especially with a significant portion of their attacking stars out injured or suspended. Grzegorz Krychowiak has been a key factor in their improved showings, not just through his goals from midfield, but for his leadership. With him anchoring the base of the midfield alongside Dmitri Barinov, there has been a new kind of confidence to the forward runs and interconnectivity of his more naturally advanced teammates. Last campaign, there was a little to get excited about on paper or on the pitch against far inferior opposition.
League distractions are a common scourge of continental duties. With Zenit St. Petersburg so comfortably in the lead at the top of the Russian Premier League but the rest of the top five so close behind, the pressure is firmly on. Or at least one would assume so. With this the second consecutive Champions League appearance after 14 years outside the competition the temptation is considerable to be satisfied with simply repeating the trick and receiving all the welcome riches that come with it, rather than focussing on a title challenge. The significance of extending the European adventure is central to being able to attract a higher calibre of player – or keep the stars they have.
Bayer Leverkusen have a torturous relationship with Europe’s premier competition. Over the turn of the century, they finished runners up in the Bundesliga four times and started to become regular members of the exclusive and newly expanded cabal of the continent’s elite. On their debut in 1997/98 they were knocked out by the eventual winners Real Madrid, before losing out on goal difference in the group stages two years later. A season later saw them lose twice to Real again despite scoring five goals in their two group stage games before one of the most iconic individual goals in European Cup final history from Zinedine Zidane in 2002 once more denied Leverkusen.
That season saw arguably their most talented group of players reach the pinnacle of the club’s achievement. Soon after it was broken up and the nearly men of German and European football slid away from the forefront of the Champions League frontrunners. This season is their eighth campaign at the top level since that balletic swivel from Real Madrid’s elegant playmaker and it is hard to say there has been much progress. Peter Bosz has presided over a dreadful season amidst numerous calls for a replacement to be found. The shock win over Atlético Madrid in the last round of group-stage matches was only their second win in eight games in all competitions, while in the Bundesliga they have slipped to ninth in the table.
Sporting director Rudi Völler was quietly confident of his side putting up a “hot fight” in Moscow however, knowing that anything other than a win will leave their fate out of their hands. “I’m optimistic we can handle this,” he said to the media after the 1-1 draw against fourth-placed Freiburg at the weekend. “But, of course, it will be a hard fight on a difficult run. But if we play as well as against Freiburg, we also have a good chance in Russia.” With just three points separating them from the Champions League places in the Bundesliga and a mathematical chance of still qualifying out of their group, perhaps there is a slither of hope for Leverkusen.
Lokomotiv Moscow vs Leverkusen – Players to Watch
Aleksey Miranchuk #59 – Lokomotiv Moscow
In his twin brother’s absence, Aleksey has resumed his role as the leading creator in the injury-hit forward line for Lokomotiv Moscow. This season Yuriy Semin has had to break the mold of his usual disciplined approach to attacking opponents to fit his key players into a functioning unit. At the age of 23, Miranchuk already classes as a senior member of this side given the experience he has developed. His composed, goalscoring performances home and away against Juventus have sparked rumours of him being the latest Russian star to venture to a grander stage. For now though, with his twin back by his side, Miranchuk will provide the majority of the impetus from Lokomotiv’s attacking possession.
Kevin Volland #31 – Bayer Leverkusen
Kevin Volland has been the top striker for the 2002 semi-finalists. Struggling in a group that contains Juventus and Atletico Madrid is hardly a surprise or embarrassment for most clubs, but last round it was Volland’s goal that gave Leverkusen some hope. The 27-year-old son of former hockey professional Andreas Volland has scored seven goals and four assists in 18 competitive games. Not a typical number nine, Volland’s low gravity highlights his past in ice hockey. Quick on the turn and extremely robust, he interprets the all-out striker role almost like a winger. If he plays as the lone striker as expected, then Lokomotiv will have a job on their hands to keep him quiet.
Lokomotiv Moscow vs Leverkusen – Match Stats
- Lokomotiv haven’t picked up a point since beating Leverkusen on matchday one but know that a win will guarantee at least Europa League football in the spring.
- The result in Leverkusen was Lokomotiv’s first Champions League away win in 14 attempts (D4, L9).
- Lokomotiv have won just five of their last 15 home European games, including losing five of the last six
- This will be Leverkusen’s 100th match in the Champions League proper.
- If the German visitors fail to win they will definitely be out of the competition, while defeat will knock them out of Europe altogether.
- They have reached the knockout stages in seven of their previous eight Champions League campaigns.
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Lokomotiv Moscow vs Leverkusen – 2-1
Lokomotiv Moscow vs Bayer Leverkusen – Possible Lineups
Guilherme – Ignatyev, Ćorluka, Höwedes, Rybus – Cerqueira, Krychowiak, Barinov – Aleksey Miranchuk, Anton Miranchuk – Éder
Manager: Yuriy Semin
Hrádecký – Lars Bender, Tah, Sven Bender, Wendell – Demirbay, Aránguiz – Bellarabi, Paulinho, Diaby – Volland
Manager: Peter Bosz
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.