After a 2 month hiatus, the Champions League resumes on Tuesday with an alluring matchup between German side Bayer Leverkusen and defending title holders Barcelona, with the first leg at BayArena.
Barcelona will go into the tie as strong favourites, but they better beware of an improving Leverkusen side who will be no pushover. Das Werkself finished second in Group E which culminated with a stirring 2-1 result over Chelsea which sent Leverkusen through to the knockout stage.
If Leverkusen are to pull off a major upset they must improve their play along the backline. Robin Dutt’s side conceded 8 goals in the Group Stage and only recorded one clean sheet. Keeper Bernd Leno has been inconsistent at best and he must provide a stronger last line of defence. The back four has looked slow at times so pace will be an issue. Stefan Reinartz and Czech International Michal Kadlec are the strength of the defenders and they will have to be in peak form to quell the Barcelona attack.
The midfield is led by longtime German International Michael Ballack who can still be a creative force. Ballack will also try to frustrate the Barcelona midfield with his physical strength and swarming attack. Keep an eye out for Sidney Sam who is a productive goal scorer from the attacking midfield spot. Sam has notched 4 goals in the Bundesliga and did manage to find the back of the net in the Champions League as well.
Up front Leverkusen like to use three attackers. Swiss International Eren Derdiyok, Stefan Kiessling, and Andre Schurrle aren’t afraid to drive the opposition’s net. Derdiyok leads Leverkusen with 9 goals in all competitions and is the only Leverkusen player with 2 goals in the Champions League. Barcelona must contain Derdiyok or Leverkusen will have an opportunity for a surprise.
Barcelona are coming into this tie in a surprising laborious form. The mighty Blaugarna, fell 3-2 to Osasuna over the weekend leaving them 10 points adrift of Real Madrid in La Liga. Pep Guardiola’s side has performed more adept in Europe, going undefeated in Group H with a draw to AC Milan being the only blemish.
Despite the pains Barcelona are going through in La Liga, Lionel Messi is still a first class striker and is still in the discussion as the world’s top player. The Argentine International led all scorers in the Group stage, tallying 6 goals for Barcelona. Messi is dangerous whenever he’s on the pitch and can disrupt the opposition in a heartbeat. Messi won’t have David Villa on his side as the Spanish international will miss the rest of the tournament from knee surgery. Alexis Sanchez and Pedro will round out the Barcelona attack as they bring pace and form along the flanks. Sanchez does have 8 goals for Barcelona but has been questioned for lack of experience and being in form for the big match.
The midfield, while still potent, will miss a paramount component as Andres Iniesta will be sidelined for the first leg due to a muscle tear in the hamstring. While Iniesta’s absence is crucial, it is not fatal. Cesc Fabregas is an apt replacement to compensate for Iniesta’s loss and should provide a solid partnership of Xavi in the central midfield.
The back four has been erratic at times. Dani Alves will provide surging runs from the back while Eric Abidal, Gerard Pique, and Carlos Puyol will steady the ship from the rear. Victor Valdes has had moments of uncertainty in La Liga but he’s been keen in Europe.
Leverkusen must get a result at home if they are to have any chance. Barcelona’s failures away from Nou Camp should be taken advantage of by Leverkusen if the German side are to reach the quarterfinals. If Barcelona can hold Leverkusen to a draw in the first leg, the Blaugarna will have a decisive advantage when they return to the Catalan capital. Ballack vs. Xavi is an intriguing matchup in the midfield and will provide a key story in the tie. I just don’t see Leverkusen’s back four handling Messi up front and the lack of pace will hurt Leverkusen. Despite their recent form, Barcelona should win this leg and advance to the quarterfinals.
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