Qarabağ vs. Bayer Leverkusen: Europa League round of 16 preview

Azerbaijani champions Qarabağ find themselves in the Europa League Round of 16 after an impressive 6-5 aggregate victory over Braga in the playoff round. Not only are the hosts the first team from their country to reach this stage of a major European competition, but they are also 23 points clear at the top of their domestic league!

This should allow them to focus on this first leg against Bayer Leverkusen, as these two teams meet for the third time in the tournament this season. However, Qarabağ have lost both previous meetings in the group stage, and their record of just one win in their last four competitive home matches – conceding at least three goals in three of those outings – could prove problematic against one of the most in-form teams in Europe.

Having won all six of their Europa League group stage matches, Leverkusen will make the long trip east in confident mood, especially as their unbeaten run in Germany was extended at the weekend. After beating rivals Cologne 2-0, Die Werkself are now 34 games (30v, 4n) unbeaten in all competitions this season, and have extended their lead at the top of the Bundesliga to ten points. They are looking more and more likely to claim a first title.

Leverkusen have been particularly impressive on the road of late, winning 13 of their last 14 competitive away matches (1n), seven of which have been accompanied by a clean sheet. Remarkably, eleven of those matches have also seen the German side score at least two goals. That is a trend they will be keen to continue here in Baku, as they look to take a significant advantage into the second leg.

Players to watch: Qarabag’s Juninho has scored 21 goals in all competitions this season. His last three goals have all been scored between the 55th and 65th minutes, including one in the Europa League. Leverkusen’s Álex Grimaldo scored his 11th goal of the season at the weekend, and two of those have come in this Europa League tie, with a brace in the group stage.

Hot stat: Qarabağ have received 25 yellow cards in the Europa League this season, the second most in the competition, not including qualifying rounds.

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