There is something to be said for continuity. Watching Guardiola’s post-match press conferences over the past few seasons is a lesson in seny [prudence], that most Catalan of traits, and at times it can be difficult to determine whether Barcelona have won or lost the match in question. Only the emergence of that sly smile, making the briefest of appearances across the face of el mister gives away the result for those who look for it. For the footballing press in Spain, sustained as they are on speculative vitriol and invented transfer rumors, Pep’s measured demeanor must come as quite a disappointment. I don’t think they’d like his style much in London either, though no one seems to have told Chelsea.
Champions League football returns to the Camp Nou this Wednesday evening, offering a welcome respite from the on and off-field distractions that have been hounding the Catalans this past week. Needing to overturn a 3-1 deficit from the first leg, Leverkusen will face a grim array of statistics as they take the pitch at the Camp Nou: Die Werkself have not won an away match in the competition since 2002, and have been eliminated each of the seven times they’ve lost a first leg tie. Barcelona, meanwhile, are unbeaten at the Camp Nou since October 2009, and have progressed to the next stage of the tournament 31 of the 33 times that they’ve won the first leg. Even with the depleted squad at Guardiola’s disposal for this match, I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to find an optimist on the plane from Leverkusen.
The Barcelona starting XI this Wednesday evening should be a motley assortment given recent injuries, with the biggest question mark looming over the defense. Dani Alves should take up the right flank, but will Piquè make an appearance in the center? It’s not so clear. Common sense would dictate that, given his impending suspension in La Liga, Guardiola would opt for the services of the tall defender while he can. But after Gerard’s outburst in the media concerning the perceived “premeditation” of Saturday’s referee, it’s quite possible that Pep will opt for younger blood in an effort to remind Piquè that it’s best to bite one’s tongue. Still, such a public rebuke doesn’t seem Pep’s style; into the starting lineup he goes then. Mascherano should start alongside him, with Puyol making an appearance on the left after being given a rest at the weekend.
In midfield I’d like to see Xavi given some time off. After a fine display on the weekend that was capped with a goal, the captain deserves some time to recuperate as he gets on in age; the more rest he gets now, the longer we’ll be graced by his presence. Who, then, in the middle? How about Busquets, Fàbregas and Keita. The latter played spectacularly well against Gijón and deserves more playing time, especially if he is to be dissuaded from considering other options at the end of the season.
Up top I think Pedro, Tello and Messi should do nicely. Tello looks to be a gem in the making, and the more consistent playing time he gets the faster he’ll be able to slot in more regularly (although we’ll see what Villa has to say about that once he returns in a few months time). The loss of Alexis Sánchez to injury means that Pedro should also get a start come Wednesday evening, and will hopefully use the opportunity to get back to his scoring ways. The young Tenerifeño appears to be in the throws of a crisis of confidence, no doubt augmented by his recent exclusion from La Roja, so hopefully Wednesday will offer an avenue to get back on track. And then, of course, there is Messi. After a hat trick for Argentina and a subsequent rest, one can imagine how desperate la pulga must be to lace up his boots against Leverkusen. A very unpleasant thought for the Germans, no doubt.
Predicted Starting XI: Valdés, Alves, Piquè, Mascherano, Puyol, Busquets, Keita, Fàbregas, Pedro, Tello, Messi
Despite the doom and gloom that this article has foreshadowed for Leverkusen thus far, a weekend victory over domestic powerhouse Bayern Munich should see Die Werkself arrive in the Catalan capitol with a certain degree of self confidence. Barcelona defenders, take note: Leverkusen’s two late goals came from scrappy play in the box, and a lightning quick counter attack (respectively). These are just the sort of goals that the Catalans have been allowing in as of late, so lackadaisical defending will not suffice.
Bernd Leno should once again start in goal for the visiting Germans, with Manuel Friedrich, Daniel Schwaab, Michal Kadlec and Vedran Corluka starting in front of him. In midfield we should see Simon Rolfes in his usual holding midfield position, with Lars Bender, Stefan Reinartz and Gonzalo Castro. On an interesting side note Gonzalo Castro’s extended family will be traveling from their native Girona for Wednesday evening’s game, so let’s hope that he doesn’t disappoint too much.
Who then will be tasked with firing in the goals for Leverkusen once the sun sets on Wednesday? I think Stefan Kießling and Renato Augusto. Both played quite well against Munich on the weekend, with Kießling tapping home the opener late on. While neither could be accused of having caused too much trouble in the first leg, they each have the ability to cause the sorts of problems that the Catalan back line has had trouble dealing with as of late.
Predicted Starting XI: Leno, Friedrich, Schwaab, Kadlec, Corluka, Rolfes, Bender, Reinartz, Castro, Kießling, Renato Augusto
Even given the injuries and back room squabbling that has distracted Barcelona in the last few days, it’s hard to see Leverkusen staging an upset at the Camp Nou. Talk of Guardiola being targeted for the vacant Chelsea manager position may make excellent headlines, and Piquè’s “unique” interpretation of his sending off certainly drove the Marca editors into fits of ecstasy, but in the end the Catalans are simply a better team in every position. Leverkusen is not a side to be dismissed lightly, and they may well take advantage of Barcelona’s inability to competently defend set pieces, but over two legs it’s just too much to ask.
Barcelona 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Image Credit: Joern Pollex/Bongarts/Getty Images