The return of Champions League football to the match calendar signals the end of a tumultuous few months for FC Barcelona, but brings with it a new set of expectations. Expectations can be a terrible thing when the expectation is perfection. The Catalans now find themselves in the middle of a winter “crisis” if you choose to believe the MARCA headlines, ten points adrift of league leaders Real Madrid and with a growing list of injuries. Saturday’s league defeat to Osasuna has sent the sporting papers into a hysteria of doomsday headlines, with reporters falling over themselves to detail just why this Barcelona team is in free fall. Funny, I had thought that our winter wasn’t so bad: a Club World Cup trophy was added to the silverware cabinet, and a place in the Copa Del Rey final secured after hard-fought wins over both Real Madrid and Valencia. Odd then that Barcelona are “underachieving”. I hadn’t noticed.
Whatever your make of the recent events on the pitch, Tuesday evening offers an excellent opportunity for the Catalans to dispense with recent worries as they travel to face Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen. Averaging four goals per game in away matches during the group phase, Guardiola’s men will fancy a heavy-handed win to wrap up the tie in the first leg, with an eye towards the away goal rule that features in the knockout stages. Both teams enter the match on the back of weekend losses in their respective domestic leagues, and with the continuation of a severe cold snap hitting the Northern reaches of the continent expect an exciting (if not chilly) return to the tournament.
Barcelona travel to Germany on Monday with a number of B team players as well as injured midfielder Sergio Busquets, who will join the team despite not being given a medical clearance yet. Expect to see many of the starters from Saturday’s defeat to Osasuna take the field for the starting whistle; Guardiola is not the type to underestimate the German opposition, and knows that a strong performance in the Bay Arena will calm some of the more jittered nerves in the Catalan capital. Even the Calm One must be beginning to feel the outside pressure, no matter how many times he says tranquilo in his press conferences.
Valdés will take up his post in goal, with Dani Alves, Puyol, Piqué and Abidal sitting directly in front of him. I expect to see Javier Mascherano in a defensive midfield role above the back four: Guardiola will want to get as much use out of the Argentine as possible considering his suspension for the next La Liga match, and risking the still questionable Busquets in such an important game seems a bit too much. I’d like to see Xavi and Iniesta rounding out the midfield, with Fàbregas, Messi and Alexis Sánchez leading the attack. Messi and Fàbregas have been exploiting their apparently telepathic link as of late to devastating effect, and I would like to see this run continue.
Leverkusen currently find themselves sitting in sixth place in the Bundesliga, fresh from a disappointing loss to league leaders Borussia Dortmund on the weekend. News that 35-year-old Michael Ballack will miss the round of 16 tie, after he tore a calf muscle in the Sunday morning training sesion, should come as welcome news to traveling Blaugrana fans,,although in truth the ageing midfielder has played an increasingly minor role since the winter break. The January loan signing of Tottenham defender Vedran Corluka has given an added boost to the Germans back line, with the Croatian’s fierce runs down the flanks a potential problem area for the Catalans. Deemed surplus to requirements at Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham, expect him to play a role in Leverkusen’s counter attacks.
Predicting the line-up for an opponent is never an easy task, as the opposition coach’s mentality is something only learned after months of study. Leverkusen’s Bernd Leno should start in goal, with defenders Manuel Freidrich, Daniel Schwaab, Michal Kadlec and the aforementioned Vedran Corluka lining up in front of the young keeper. I expect to see a four-person midfield containing Stefan Reinartz, team captain Simon Rolfes, Lars Bender and the more defense-minded Gonzalo Castro to help deal with Barcelona’s constant pressure. Rounding out the 4-4-2 should be German striker Stefan Kießling (pronounced like a double “s”) alongside the excellent young André Schürrle. A product of the FSV Mainz 05 youth set up, the 21-year-old German international is known for his cool finishing, and could represent a serious threat to the Barcelona back four.
Predicted starting XI:
Bayer Leverkusen: Leno, Freidrich, Schwaab, Kadlec, Corluka, Reinartz, Rolfes, Bender, Castro, Kießling, Schürrle.
FC Barcelona: Valdés, Dani Alves, Puyol, Piquè, Abidal, Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta, Fàbregas, Messi, Sánchez
How Barcelona fair in this game will have a lot to do with how their defenders communicate with each other. As was the case in Pamplona, the Catalan defenders have lost track of opposing attackers sneaking in at the back post too many times this season, surging forward to surround whoever has the ball only to leave someone else unmarked in the box. Mistakes like these, and Barcelona’s inability to defend set-pieces will be costly against a Bayer Leverkusen side that boasts several quick young attackers, as well as the insightful midfield passing of captain Simon Rolfes. While there has been a good deal of talk concerning Messi’s recent “lack of form”, any suggestions that the world’s best player isn’t up to the challenge are, frankly, laughable. As long as the back four keep an eye on each other things should go Barcelona’s way.
Bayer Leverkusen 1-3 Barcelona
Image credit: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images