By Simon Hart
As Bayer 04 Leverkusen's players trained at the San Siro on the eve of their match against Internazionale FC, a watching supporter observed he had felt compelled to make the trip from Germany as such nights could soon be no more.
One game into the second group stage and Leverkusen's UEFA Champions League prospects would suffer severe damage with defeat against Inter. "Tomorrow's game will almost certainly be decisive in terms of the group," admitted Klaus Toppmöller, coach of last season's beaten finalists. After the 2-1 home reverse against FC Barcelona in their Group A opener, Toppmöller believes a second loss against the "group favourites" would make it "very hard to come back".
Injuries are not helping Leverkusen, who sit 12th in the German Bundesliga, 18 points behind leaders FC Bayern München. Brazilian Lucio joined fellow defender Jens Nowotny on the sidelines last weeks after undergoing surgery on a foot injury. And they enter the match with concerns over German international Bernd Schneider - "a vital player", according to his coach - who, together with Juan, trained apart from their colleagues on Monday night.
Needing a break
Little wonder Toppmöller feels the winter break could not come sooner, despite Saturday's 3-0 league win at TSV 1860 München. "I think all the players had a very hard year with playing Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, and they played the [FIFA] World Cup in Japan and Korea until 1 July," he told uefa.com. "
We've had lots of injuries and are looking forward to having a break."
Inter miss defenders
Yet Toppmöller is optimistic they can go into that break with their hopes intact. "I expect Inter will put a lot of pressure on our goal but I think we can counterattack against them. They have a problem in their defence - [Fabio] Cannavaro is suspended and [Marco] Materazzi is injured and maybe we can score here and make a big surprise."
Recoba could start
These absences mean a likely partnership of Iván Cordoba and the Paraguayan Carlos Gamarra in Inter's central defence. There could also be a start for Alvaro Recoba - a scoring substitute in the 4-1 win at Newcastle United FC - potentially in a front three alongside Christian Vieri and Hernán Crespo, the tournament's leading scorer. In midfield, Luigi Di Biagio should return alongside Emre Belözoglu, who faces his Turkish international colleague Yildiray Bastürk three nights after his second-half double helped Inter recover a three-goal deficit to draw 3-3 at S.S. Lazio.
While Héctor Cúper said "[conceding] three goals is too much for our team", he believes Inter are making progress. "We are playing better. Our possession of the ball has improved a lot." This improvement, however, will be tested by Leverkusen's "aggressive pressing game", along with their "high balls, free-kicks and corners". Yet the Argentinian thinks the Nerazzurri are up to the task, insisting: "I still want more from my team." As the stakes rise, Toppmöller could doubtless say the same.
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