Champions League preview: Barcelona versus Panathinaikos

BARCELONA SPAIN - OCTOBER 03: Lionel Messi of Barcelona shows his European Golden Boot award prior to the start of the La Liga match between Barcelona and Mallorca at the Camp Nou stadium on October 3 2010 in Barcelona Spain. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

Barcelona are set to travel to Greece to face Panathinaikos this Wednesday in Champions League Group D action. Barca currently lead the group with eight points, Copenhagen have seven points, Rubin Kazan three, and Panathinaikos two. The group is basically sewn up at this point, the only real question being which positions Barca and Copenhagen will finish in. Technically, all 4 teams are mathematically eligible for the knockout-stages but it's Barcelona and Copenhagen who are advancing.

Finishing first in the group will potentially lead to knockout-stage opponents such as Valencia, Rangers, AS Roma, AC Milan, or Shakhtar Donesk. Finishing second in the group will potentially lead to knockout-stage opponents such as Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, or Arsenal.  While there are still two rounds of Champions League football to be played it is clear that winning your group is important.  Inter Milan won the competition last year after only finishing second in their group but I don't think any team would like to face a "bracket of death" against teams like Chelsea, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich if they can find an easier road to the final.

Panathinaikos come into the game with a new coach in Jesualdo Ferreira. Ferreira coached at SC Braga (2003-2006) and FC Porto (2006-2009) while winning three consecutive Portuguese league titles in the process. He will look to improve dramatically on the 5-1 drubbing that Barca handed Panathinaikos at the Camp Nou on September 14. The Greens will look to former Lyon player Sidney Govou to repeat his performance from the first match and grab an early lead.  It was Govou who claimed a 1-0 advantage for the visitors before Barca scored five straight goals at the Camp Nou. Unfortunately for Panathinaikos, it is their only goal scored in four CL games this term.  Govou and Djibril Cisse will be the main attacking options for the home side this week.

For Barcelona it is a chance to let their strong La Liga form blend into their Champions League struggles.  Fresh off a 8-0 beating of Almeria on Saturday, la blaugrana will be sure to pack their goal-scoring boots for the trip to Greece. Barca have lacked a finishing touch in this competition and draws versus Copenhagen and Rubin Kazan have shown that.  

Lionel Messi's five goals in the CL are second only to Inter Milan's Samuel Eto'o, who has seven thus far. Panathinaikos have no answer for players such as Messi, David Villa, and Pedro up front.  While it is always possible that the Greens will snag a random goal I think Barca are good for three or four of their own.  Even as the visiting team, look for Barca to dominate possession and create lots of scoring chances.  If Barca can pull out the win and Copenhagen drop points versus Rubin Kazan then Pep Guardiola may find his team having effectively won the group by the end of the day and be in a position to rest players when Barca finish out their group stages match on December 7 versus Kazan.

A possible distraction for Barcelona is their upcoming El Clasico match against Real Madrid on November 29. Barca must stay focused on the task at hand, winning their Champions League group, and worry about Ronaldo and Higuain after this game. Barca can't afford another CL slip. The last thing Barca can afford to do is finish second and get drawn against Manchester United, especially with Messi heading that way soon.    

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