On a run of seven straight wins, Bayer 04 Leverkusen are the form team in the UEFA Champions League.
While they may not have as prolific a European record as quarter-final opponents Liverpool FC, Bayer 04 Leverkusen's performance to top Group D in the second group stage showed that they are real contenders for this season's competition. Their record in Europe has been far from consistent, though, particularly in defence. Domestically, Leverkusen are closing in on their first 1. Bundesliga title and the feeling is growing that they are capable of their first continental honour since their 1988 UEFA Cup win - especially as they have hit form at just the right time with seven straight competitive wins.
Having registered 24 goals so far in the tournament, scoring has not been a problem for Leverkusen, with 13 different players on target in the group stages. Beating RC Deportivo La Coruña, Olympique Lyonnais and Fenerbahçe SK away from home proves they can maintain their form outside the BayArena - a crucial factor in the knock-out stages when goals on the road count for so much. Brazilian Zé Roberto is a key midfield inspiration.
Three times in the group stages Leverkusen conceded four goals in one match, including against their only English opponents so far, Arsenal FC. That was a disappointing record for penalty-taking goalkeeper Hans-Jörg Butt, who has seen 20 goals go past him in all in the UEFA Champions League. With Liverpool containing striking talent like Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and Jari Litmanen, this could prove costly.
First group stage:
Given a tough draw in the third qualifying round against 1991 winners FK Crvena Zvezda of Yugoslavia, Leverkusen drew in Belgrade before an excellent second-leg performance saw them triumph 3-0, with two goals from Oliver Neuville and one for Ulf Kirsten. Wins in their opening three games in the first group stage against Fenerbahçe, Lyon and FC Barcelona ensured that progress from Group F was relatively smooth. Although they lost the return to Barcelona in the Camp Nou, they qualified with an away 2-1 victory over Fenerbahçe, ensuring a 4-2 home defeat against Lyon only cost them first place behind the Catalan club rather than a place in the second stage.
Second group stage:
When the draw was made they may have regretting conceding Group F to Barça, as they were paired with Arsenal, Deportivo and Juventus FC. A 4-0 loss to Juventus in the first match suggested the worst, but beating Deportivo 3-0 at the BayArena proved vital later on. After the winter break they were held 1-1 at home by Arsenal then lost 4-1 in London but the closeness of the group kept them in the hunt. A 3-1 home win over Juventus eliminated the Italians, and Leverkusen were crowned Group D winners with an impressive victory by the same score in La Coruña.
UEFA Champions League statistics (not including qualifying round):
Played: 12 Won: 7 Drawn: 1 Lost: 4 Goals scored: 21 Goals against: 20
Top goalscorer: Michael Ballack, Ulf Kirsten, Oliver Neuville (3 each)
Last five results:
30 March 1. Bundesliga 1. FC Kaiserslautern (a) 4-2
23 March 1. Bundesliga TSV 1860 München (h) 4-0
20 March UEFA Champions League RC Deportivo La Coruña (a) 3-1
16 March 1. Bundesliga VfB Stuttgart (a) 2-0
12 March UEFA Champions League Juventus FC (h) 3-1