[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he last two first-leg Champions League clashes of the round of 16 take place tonight, with Arsenal facing Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen hosting last season’s beaten finalists Atlético Madrid in Germany.
The latter of the two fixtures promises to be a close encounter, with the BayArena hosts needing to record victory to give themselves a chance of progression to the next stage and avoid a winless round for German football.
The Bundesliga was the only domestic league to have four teams make it through the group stage, but the three sides that have featured in their first legs so far have work to do in the reverse fixtures.
Bayern Munich, surely one of the favourites to win the competition this season, were frustrated in Ukraine and held to a 0-0 draw by a Shakhtar Donetsk side that shouldn’t be immediately written off.
Although the Bavarians will be supremely confident of recording the necessary victory on home soil to progress, an early away goal would have the Allianz Arena faithful panicking.
Schalke were comprehensively beaten by reigning champions Real Madrid in Gelsenkirchen, losing 2-0 in a one-sided fixture.
Roberto Di Matteo’s men were put to the sword by the Spaniards at the same stage last season, but despite the scoreline being more flattering on the Germans this time round, elimination at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu awaits.
Borussia Dortmund travelled to Turin last night hoping to build on an improved run of recent form, but went down fighting to Juventus, losing 2-1.
Marco Reus’ strike gives the German side hope that the tie can be rescued, but Jürgen Klopp’s men have work to do if they are to make it through to the quarter-finals.
On first sight, Atlético will be fancied by most as too strong for Leverkusen, but the German side should not be automatically discounted.
With the heady days of the 2001-02 Champions League final now a distant memory, the BayArena outfit were destroyed by Paris Saint-Germain at this stage last term, but the hosts will quietly fancy their chances of causing an upset this season.
The first leg on home soil will be critical to their hopes, with the intimidating Estadio Vicente Calderón an imposing place for any team in world football to travel to.
Leverkusen were looking like a much more resilient and offensively ambitious side in the first half of the Bundesliga campaign, but have seen results and their place on the domestic table drop in 2015.
However, if Roger Schmidt’s men can keep things relatively tight at the back and pay particular attention to the counter-attacking menace of the in-form Antoine Griezmann, they have the attacking weaponry to put the Spaniards under pressure.
In the attacking midfield trident of Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Son Heung-min and Karim Bellarabi, Leverkusen possess an enviable blend of guile and penetration to unlock the usually water-tight Atlético defence.
It will be at the other end of the pitch where the German side’s concerns lie, with an emphasis on the experienced Emir Spahić to coordinate the hosts’ rearguard and avoid shipping away goals.
Schmidt’s men look likely to be without key midfielder Lars Bender, but this will be offset by Koke’s absence for the visitors.
Despite the calibre of the Bayern set-up, none of the German sides are guaranteed a place in the last eight after the first legs of their Champions League clashes.
A confident performance from Leverkusen tonight will be needed to stave off an excellent Atlético side. However, if the Bundesliga side plays to their potential there is no reason that they cannot take the ascendancy into the return leg in Spain and avoid a winless quartet of fixtures for German football.
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