FC Barcelona resumed the defence of the Uefa Champions League trophy with a 1-3 victory over Bayer Leverkusen tonight at the BayArena stadium in Cologne. Alexis Sanchez took advantage of an excellent assist from Leo Messi to put Barça ahead just before half time but Kadlec pulled one back for the Germans soon after the break. It took Barça only four minutes to go back in front, this time it was Cesc Fabregas who played a splendid ball in to Alexis who brilliantly rounded Bayer keeper Leno to score his second of the night. Leo Messi’s goal near the end leaves Leverkusen with an almost impossible task for the return leg at Camp Nou on March 7th.
It was decided before the game that Xavi needs more rest while Gerard Piqué was also left out, whether this was due to his poor performance at Osasuna or his traffic accident in the centre of Barcelona yesterday, I couldn’t tell you. The good news was a return to the team for Sergio Busquets who started in front of the defence, while there was a place for Adriano again on the left wing. The most noticeable thing to say about how the teams played is that in the first half Bayer’s formation reminded me of how Real Madrid played in the Champions League first leg game last April. The only difference was there were not the nasty challenges we saw in that clasico but Bayer lined up with what could be described as a 4-1-4-1 except their lines were so close together there was often only 20 yards between number nine Schurrer and the German back four and it was a rare thing to see any Bayer player cross the halfway line. Barça were content to pass the ball from side to side but every time we tried to work an opening we were quickly closed down. Messi had four or five players around him as soon as he even thought about making a run. The ball to Alexis was always very difficult due to the lack of space and perhaps the only balls that looked promising was the ones we tried to play inside the full back.
We were having all the possession but it was mainly with Mascherano and Puyol, the only shots were well wide from Alves’s free kick and Adriano’s cut in from the left. Iniesta was back but looking quiet, and when he did find a creative spark to chip a pass forward he was unlucky that it hit Messi’s back. Messi was having no luck with his runs and the game was becoming somewhat tedious, however, just before half time Messi received the ball inside the centre circle and sent a flicked pass with the outside of his boot which sent both Fabregas and Alexis bearing down on goal, Fabregas was probably favourite to reach the ball first but he could see that the line of Alexis’s run was better so he unselfishly got out of the way so that Alexis could stick the ball through Leno’s legs for the all important first away goal.
Bayer came out more in the second half and you had to wonder why they hadn’t tried attacking in the first half when it took them just six minutes after the break to equalize. Mascherano sent a poor clearance high into the air and we failed to clear properly during the ensuing exchange of head-tennis, the ball arrived to Corluka on the right and Abidal failed to close him down allowing the cross to come over to the far post where Kadlec towered above Alexis and Alves to head past Valdés.
Fortunately, after this we were quickly back in front. Adriano played a crossfield pass to Cesc who found a pinpoint pass into Alexis who touched the ball around Leno before slotting the ball into the empty net. We almost threw the lead away again as both Mascherano and Abidal failed to clear, and Valdés had to save from Renato. Then in the 64th minute Valdés saved brilliantly from Castro’s low shot, just doing enough to touch the ball onto the far post.
However, as the Germans tried to search for a second goal the spaces began to appear for Barça, and Messi in particular, to exploit. There was a fine one-two with Alves but the shot was deflected wide, then there was a tremendous nutmeg followed by the Messi trademark dink over keeper, but instead of a wondergoal the ball hit the outside of the post. Leverkusen gave Valdés one more worry with substitute Kiessling’s header forcing a save on the goal line but Barça were looking the more likely to score again.
Alexis was close to a hat-trick to put the icing on his best performance so far for Barça, he had the ball in the net though the play was called back for a correct offside call on Fabregas, and then he forced another save from Leno with a flicked header, Busquets not quite reaching the rebound. The final word, however, came from Messi. You can never keep him quiet for long. He held off the challenge on his back to thread a perfect ball for Alves’s advance, Alves might have scored himself but he centred for Messi who’d continued his run to stretch and stab a volley past the defender on the line.
This was not a great performance and the first half in particular was not an exciting affair to watch. However, considering the fact that a poor result tonight would have sent all sorts of alarm bells ringing we can be pretty satisfied. Yes, there were some errors, and we struggled to create against the first half German wall. However, we showed patience to stick to our game and Alexis took his chances brilliantly. Hopefully, the game should serve to stabilize our nerves a bit and we can start to find some consistency, though of course there is now the big question of why Guardiola left out Piqué, and whether there is any potential problem with the player. I think it is highly unlikely that Piqué will react badly. It is of course possible that this was some sort of punishment for him but I imagine it will remain just that and no more will be said about the matter. I imagine Piqué will be back in the team on Sunday for Valencia’s visit.
Finally, this is the first time under Guardiola that we have won the first leg of the last 16 tie. For some reason, possibly because we are not in our best physical condition in February, we have always had problems before. Perhaps if we had been playing a stronger opponent we would have suffered more. Last season we faced Arsenal at this stage of the season and we returned to England to beat Manchester United at Wembley. Hopefully we will be returning to Germany in May to lift the trophy again.
Bayer 04: Leno, Schwaab, Reinartz, Friedrich, Corluka (Da Costa m91), Kadlec, Castro, Rolfes (Kiessling m76), Bender, Renato Augusto, Schürrle (Bellarabi m90)
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 6.5, Puyol 6, Mascherano 6, Abidal 6; Busquets 6.5, Fabregas 7, Iniesta 6 (Thiago m60, 6.5); Messi 7.5, Alexis 8.5 (Cuenca m85), Adriano 6 (Pedro m70, 6).
Goals: m41 Alexis 0-1, m51 Kadlec 1-1, m55 Alexis 1-2, m88 Messi 1-3.
Yellow cards: m8 Schwaab, m53 Corluka, m80 Castro, m87 Thiago