Atlético Madrid have taken a minor step back since losing Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois in the summer, but Diego Simeone has done well to find replacements and maintain his side's momentum. They won a tricky Champions League group with Juventus, and their reward is a very winnable Round of 16 tie against Bayer Leverkusen (Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2).
The Bundesliga side is having a solid, though somewhat tumultuous first season under new manager Roger Schmidt. His up-tempo, aggressive pressing style has produced some serious entertainment for neutrals, but his team has yet to master the system. They sit sixth in Germany and got out of their group in second place, but Bayer fans probably expected slightly better results by this point.
This matchup presents an interesting clash of styles. Unlike Schmidt, Simeone emphasizes shape, over pressure, in knockout football, and isn't likely to let his team get sucked into a chaotic track meet. They'll be okay with a draw away from home, but it's tough to picture a match in which Atléti make no serious attempt at grabbing an away goal.
Ömer Toprak is suspended for Bayer, while Robbie Kruse misses out with an injury. There are also questions about the fitness of Lars Bender and Tin Jedvaj, but both are expected to be available for suspension. The only player Atléti will be without is Koke, and that's a big miss.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Bayer Leverkusen (4-2-3-1): Bernd Leno; Wendell, Emir Spahic, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Giulio Donati; Lars Bender, Gonzalo Castro; Son Hueng-Min, Hakan Calhanoglu, Karim Bellarabi; Stefan Kießling
Atlético Madrid (4-2-3-1): Miguel Angel Moya; Guilherme Siqueira, Diego Godin, Miranda, Juanfran; Gabi, Tiago Mendes; Saúl Ñíguez, Raúl Garcia, Arda Turan; Mario Mandžukić
Antoine Griezmann is in top form, but he might be a super sub in this match. He's been partnering Mandžukić up top, but Simeone likes to go with Garcia in Champions League games and other major matches where Atléti are playing defensively.
Gonzalo Castro vs. Gabi - This role could be filled by Stefan Reinartz, or Bender could move up the pitch a bit with Simon Rolfes coming in. However, there will be someone in the center of Bayer's midfield who will have to pressure Gabi. The Atléti midfield maestro dictates everything from a deep position, and their counter-attack will be deadly if Bayer don't deny him time on the ball.
Hakan Calhanoglu vs. Miguel Angel Moya - While Bayer are a fast, attacking side, their best chances to score on Atléti are likely to be from set pieces. Even though the Rojiblancos are among the world's best at defending set plays, there won't be much their defenders can do if Moya misjudges one of Calhanoglu's spectacular deliveries or fails to reach a direct free kick into the top corner.
Bayer's defense against ... well, everything - Because Toprak is suspended -- while Bender and Jedvaj are slight doubts -- the Bayer defense is looking a little thin, and like it might not be that well protected. They're facing a dynamic Atléti team that scores goals from midfield and converts on set pieces just as well as they find their strikers for chances. It's going to be a tough challenge for Schmidt's back line.
Atléti are probably the better and more organized side in this tie, and should triumph after the away leg in Madrid. However, an away goal is probably going to be good enough for them in this first leg, and they won't get too ambitious after they get it. 1-1 Draw.