Poor Bayer Leverkesen. The German side led Barça for close to an hour in tonight’s Champions League clash at Camp Nou after Papadopolous’s 22nd minute header, and for long periods they looked the better side. With just ten minutes remaining, substitute Sergi Roberto grabbed Barça’s equalizer, and just two minutes later Luis Suárez smashed home the winner which, with Roma losing to BATE Borisov, leaves Barça top of Group E on four points after two games. The night had a negative side for Luis Enrique’s side as Andrés Iniesta limped off with a hamstring injury which could see him out for three weeks, adding to the growing list of injuries this season.
Sandro was chosen to replace Leo Messi on the right of Barça’s attack and Jeremy Mathieu was preferred over Jordi Alba at left-back, but besides that Barça had nine of the starters from the Champions League Final which meant no place for the in-form Sergi Roberto. Bayer played a 4-4-2 in an energetic high press which immediately gave Barça problems to play the ball out from defence and after just 70 seconds Ter Stegen needed to make a save from Chicharito Hernández’s near post shot.
Rakitic had an early header from Neymar’s cross but the ball went comfortably close to Leno to save. Then in the tenth minute Sandro linked up well with Luis Suárez but Leno made a fine stop to deny the young striker. However, it was soon evident that Bayer were not going to sit back. Bellarabi hooked over after good work from Calhanoglu and Chicharito. Kampl shot wide at the far post from Kramer’s cross, and Piqué needed to make a last-ditch block to stop Bellarabi’s shot.
Bayer’s dominance was converted into a goal when Papadopoulos scored from Calhonoglu’s inswinging corner in the 22nd minute. Neither Suárez nor Mathieu reacted at the near post and Ter Stegen didn’t arrive in time, allowing Bayer’s central defender to head in unchallenged from two yards.
Barça really struggled to react after the goal and Bayer might have made it 0-2 in the 33rd minute when Bellarabi cut inside Piqué to shoot with force from eight yards but Ter Stegen showed excellent reflexes to beat the ball away. The closest Barça came to a first-half equalizer was in the 39th minute when Rakitic and Luis Suárez combined to find Neymar. The Brazilian rolled his shot across the goal and against the far post, Sandro, following up, looked sure to score but Papadopolous slid back to block the shot a yard from the line.
Barça improved after half-time but not until Chicharito had blasted over from Bellarabi’s pass in the 50th minute. Busquets played deeper between the centre-backs to assist with bringing the ball out, the full-backs pushed forward while Neymar and Sandro moved further infield to get closer to goal. The pressure increased on the German defence and in the 52nd minute Rakitic took advantage of a hurried Bayer clearance to send a quick pass in to Sandro on the right but the youngster missed his third chance of the night, pulling his shot past the far post.
Iniesta tried to take up the gauntlet, dribbling into the area before backheeling to Rakitic whose shot hit Wendell in the face before flying across to Neymar who was also guilty of pulling his shot past the post. Then, two minutes later, Iniesta pulled up in mid-stride and Barça were forced into a substitution with Alba coming on at left-back, Mathieu moved to central defence and Mascherano took Iniesta’s place in midfield.
At this point things were not looking good for Barça. Luis Enriqué then decided to make his second substitution which would prove to be vital in the end, with Munir replacing Sandro. There was no noticeable improvement at first though Barça were playing more in Bayer’s half than in the first 45 minutes. Neymar fired a free-kick narrowly wide, and Piqué sent a header straight at Leno after Rakitic’s overhead kick from a corner.
In the 72nd minute Luis Enriqué played his final card, bringing on Sergi Roberto in place of Rakitic. The German’s had abandoned their pressing game by this time and Barça pushed further and further forward. Alves’s cross was flicked on by Sergi Roberto’s header and came to Neymar at the far post but the Brazilian failed to get a shot at goal as the defence bore down on him.
Bayer were clinging on now and with just ten minutes to go their defence finally cracked. Sergi Roberto was involved in the build-up, opening the play to Alba on the left. Alba drilled in a low cross, Munir forced a low shot that Leno couldn’t hold and Sergi Roberto darted in to stab home the rebound.
It was hard on Bayer but Barça’s late push probably deserved an equalizer. However, Barça hadn’t finished and just two minutes later Munir twisted and turned to force his way past three defenders on the right before touching the ball inside to Suárez who whipped a shot high inside the near post from 15 yards. Bayer were crushed by the double blow and there was no coming back for the Germans. A great build-up involving Suárez and Neymar gave Munir the chance to make it 3-1 near the end, but the youngster scooped his shot over Leno and wide of the far post.
There is plenty to criticise about the first-half performance when Bayer looked physically fitter. Their pressing game gave us a lot of problems and the players looked lost at times for an answer. The adjustments in the second half helped, but the comeback was down to the substitutions which added energy to Barça’s game when Bayer were beginning to tire. Credit should go to Luis Enrique, who despite the injury problems keeps grinding out victories, and to the players who showed the courage to fight back when some in the Camp Nou crowd had starting whistling from the 55th minute. The Germans posed a difficult problen for Barça tonight and the coach and players found the solution in the end.
Barça: Ter Stegen 5.5; Alves 5.5, Piqué 6, Mascherano 6, Mathieu 5.5; Rakitic 5.5 (Sergi Roberto m72, 7.5), Busquets 5.5, Iniesta 6 (Alba m60, 6); Sandro 5.5 (Munir m63, 7), Suárez 7, Neymar 6.
Leverkusen: Leno; Donati (Hilbert m76), Tah, Papadopoulos, Wendell; Kramer, Kampl, Bender, Bellarabi (Brandt m66); Çalhanoglu, Chicharito (Kiessling m55).
Goals: m22 Papadopoulos 0-1, m80 Sergi Roberto 1-1, m82 Suárez 2-1.
Yellow cards: m30 Mascherano, m37 Neymar, m40 Bender, m63 Calhanoglu, m68 Papadopoulos, m75 Alba, m89 Kampl.