With a place in the Europa League quarter-finals up for grabs, Atalanta BC and Bayer Leverkusen get their last 16 tie underway on Thursday night.
The teams meet in Bergamo, with the hosts starting to falter in domestic competition and their visitors in high spirits following a draw at Bayern Munich last weekend.
Though eliminated from the Champions League group stage late last year, Atalanta have continued to impress in continental football this season: scoring 17 goals so far and scoring at least twice on all but one occasion.
Despite a recent downturn in Serie A, the Bergamaschi took apart Greek champions Olympiacos 5-1 on aggregate in last month’s playoff round, into which they dropped following their exit from Europe’s elite competition.
Following a 2-1 win in Italy, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side cruised to a 3-0 away victory in the return leg – with makeshift striker Ruslan Malinovskyi netting a double – and are now faced by a potentially far tougher proposition in the last 16.
The Nerazzurri will welcome their in-form Bundesliga visitors to Bergamo having started to lose their way, as after crashing out of the Coppa Italia, they have gone on to win just one of their next four league games.
After a 1-0 loss to Roma on Saturday, Atalanta have recorded three draws and four defeats from their last eight domestic fixtures, so they now face a springtime scrap to return to the Champions League through a top four finish.
Sitting fifth in the Serie A standings, they return to continental action having also won only two of their last eight European ties at their Lombardy headquarters. Ahead of Thursday’s first leg, though, the club has never before lost at home in either the Europa League or UEFA Cup across a total of 10 matches.
Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz, Kerem Demirbay, Piero Hincapie and Mitchel Bakker celebrate after Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller scores an own goal on March 5, 2022© Reuters
Compared to their opponents, Leverkusen took a very different route to this stage of the competition, as they spent the autumn progressing quite serenely through Europa League Group G – topping a section including Real Betis, Celtic and Ferencvaros.
Thereby qualifying directly for the last 16, the 2002 Champions League finalists resume their continental commitments amid a positive patch of form domestically; strengthening their hold on a top-four spot.
Saturday’s 1-1 draw at leaders and perennial champions Bayern Munich keeps Die Werkself third in the Bundesliga table – though they could even have taken all three points had their finishing been more clinical in the Bavarian capital – and they can now turn their attention to the task of lifting the club’s first European trophy since 1988.
Winners of the UEFA Cup in that year, Leverkusen have been in impressive form on their more recent travels across the continent, having won six of their last 10 European away matches.
A tally of 17 points from a possible 24 to begin the second half of their Bundesliga campaign indicates that Gerardo Seoane’s side are upwardly mobile this year, and will travel to Italy in hope of taking a lead into next week’s return leg.
Not only that, but a magnificent scoring rate of three goals per game since the winter break could help overcome opponents who have finally started to lose their own touch in the final third.