With just two rounds of fixtures remaining in Champions League Group C, things are really hotting up. Bayer Leverkusen currently sit top of the pile with nine points from their four games while Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco are four points further back in second place. Behind them, Zenit St Petersburg and Benfica both have four points ahead of their meeting in Russia.
Although a draw would be enough for Leverkusen to seal their place in the last 16, a win would secure top spot in Group C and the German giants will fancy their chances against a Monaco side in desperate need of a positive result to bolster their hopes of qualification.
Since slipping to a narrow 1-0 defeat to Benfica in the last round of matches, Monaco have failed to impress in Ligue 1. After drawing 1-1 against Saint Etienne on 9 November, they required a late Joao Moutinho strike at the weekend to salvage a 2-2 draw against struggling Caen, conceding more than one goal for only the second time in their last 16 matches.
While that game should have been the perfect opportunity to build confidence and rest a few key players ahead of this crunch encounter, a failure to make their early dominance count cost Monaco dearly. Ultimately, an unbeaten run of six league games sounds promising but the reality that Monaco have now recorded just two wins in their last 10 matches paints a less rosy picture.
For Leverkusen, meanwhile, the week of their narrow loss to Monaco back in September was a rare low point in what has been a consistently strong season. After following up that defeat with a crushing 4-1 loss at Wolfsburg, Roger Schmidt’s men quickly regained their composure and have gone on to lose just once in the 12 games that followed, winning seven of them.
Finally, in contrast to Monaco’s slip up on Saturday, Leverkusen produced a dominant 3-1 win away at Hannover and find themselves in fourth place in the Bundesliga, just three points adrift of second place and 10 points behind runaway leaders Bayern Munich.
Squad Selection and Tactics
With star striker Dimitar Berbatov returning to the fold at the weekend after a month on the sidelines, Jardim has a full set of attacking options at his disposal. At the back, the void left by the injured Layvin Kurzawa will take some filling but Elderson has proved himself to be an able deputy when called upon. Elsewhere, discipline could be a worry as Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, Ricardo Carvalho and Jeremy Toulalan are all a booking away from suspension.
From a tactical perspective, Monaco returned to a 4-3-3 against Caen on Saturday evening and, while the change in shape failed to reap any rewards in that game, you can be sure that Jardim will persevere with a system that was so successful against Leverkusen back in September.
For his part, Roger Schmidt is likely to stick to his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 shape and simply hope that his players manage to find the spark in front of goal that so desperately evaded them in their 1-0 loss inside the Stade Louis II. The Werkself’s only major absentees are young centre-back Kyriakos Papadopoulos who misses out with a shoulder injury and Stefan Reinartz who is sidelined with a facial injury. Brazilian left-back Wendell is available again after serving a one-match suspension on matchday four.
Dimitar Berbatov (Monaco) – Although his performance against Caen was far from being the most memorable of returns for the Bulgarian striker, the opportunity to get 90 minutes under his belt after a lengthy layoff could be vital. Back in September, the chance to come up against a former club galvanised the 33-year-old frontman as he assisting the only goal of the game and the extra bit of fitness he picked up on Saturday will go a long way to allowing him to display that same hunger on Wednesday night should he be called upon to lead the line.
Son Heung-Min (Bayer Leverkusen) – The entire Leverkusen attack has shared their side’s goalscoring burden fairly well so far this season but mercurial South Korea international Son Heung-Min has demonstrated the ability to change a game more than most. With 10 goals already this campaign, including three in four Champions League appearances, Son is in top form and his pace out wide will provide a stern test for Monaco’s full-backs.
While Monaco managed to kickstart their Champions League campaign with an impressive win last time out against Leverkusen, the Principality side rode their luck and are now coming up against a side backed by home supporters desperate to see their side seal top spot in the group with a match to spare.
Joao Moutinho’s winner when these sides last met is still Monaco’s only goal in the group stages and everything suggests that Leverkusen will have enough to come out on top this time around, leaving Les Rouges et Blancs with a make-or-break encounter against Zenit on 9 December.
Prediction: Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 Monaco