In the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 Barcelona produced a fine performance and will be going into the second leg with a comfortable 3-1 advantage. After a string of under par games Barcelona looked to play at a level closer to their expectations, not counting the defense, and the result of such play was evident. The game itself was basically a tale of two halves with the second one being miles better.
But this game somewhat began two hours before kickoff when Culés received a piece of bad news as it was revealed that Barca's maestro, Xavi Hernandez, won't be able to participate in the game because of calf muscle problems. The midfielder offered to play on painkillers, but Pep Guardiola decided he won't risk any further complications and left Xavi out of the 18-man squad.
Busquets, however, not only recover enough from his injury to feature in the game, he was deemed fit enough to start it. There was one more surprise in Barcelona's match squad as Gerard Pique didn't even make the bench. The word from Catalonia is that Pique was dropped due to bad form and not because of an injury. Other than that the Barca lineup looked pretty much as expected apart from the fact that Adriano Correia started on the left wing and Cristian Tello didn't even feature on the bench.
On the other side Bayer Leverkusen lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with one noticeable player left out. Stefan Kießling, one of the clubs' leading scorers was left on the bench and was replaced in attack by Renato Augusto.
From the opening kickoff Barcelona controlled the ball and Bayer seemed content with organized defending and pressing the ball carrier all over the pitch. The high press, however, quickly disappeared as Bayer started to wait for Barca players in their own half.
The first ten minutes of the match were everything but attacking oriented as neither team even fired a shot, let alone on target. That changed just after the 10 minute mark when Daniel Alves took a free kick, but he fired it well over Bernd Leno's goal. The first good scoring chance of the match came for Barca in the 13th minute when a bad clearance by Manuel Friedrich perfectly setup Alexis Sanchez. Alexis tried to center the ball to Lionel Messi, but an excellent interception from Daniel Schwaab prevented what looked like a sure goal.
The more the game went on the more it appeared the hosts decided to park the bus and that they will only try to score from counter attacks. There was no space for Barca to make passes which often resulted in defenders passing the ball between themselves. That resulted in an astonishing 79% ball possession for Barcelona after 25 minutes. At times the visitors appeared clueless as to how get past all 11, yes 11, defenders and Barcelona only had two shots in the opening 30 minutes, both of them off target.
However, despite controlling the ball at times less than 20% of the time Bayer did occasionally get into Victor Valdes' penalty area which caused for some nervy clearances by the Barcelona backline.
All Bayer's good defending came undone in the 41st minute when a rare mistake in midfield resulted in a quick counter for Barcelona. Messi received the ball and sent a perfect over the top pass to Alexis on the right side who beat Leno with well placed shot for the all important away goal. It was Alexis' first goal in the Champions League.
Minutes before halftime some home fans voiced their opinion on how their side were playing as they started whistling, clearly unhappy about the defensive approach. The defensive approach that almost failed them again just seconds before the break when Barca had another odd-man rush, but it only resulted in a corner that there wasn't enough time for to take.
I think it's safe to say I'm not the only one that didn't expect Bayer to approach the game the way they did in the first half. German teams were always known for their hard-working, attacking style, but coach Robin Dutt decided to park the whole Leverkusen bus fleet in front of their goal.
The second half began with neither team making any substitutions, but Bayer clearly decided to abandon the bunker approach. Had Alexis not scored in the first half I'm sure that wouldn't have been the case, but he did and it resulted in a very good 45 minutes of play.
Bayer's change in philosophy was quickly rewarded as Barca's defense failed to clear the ball about six times which resulted in a cross from Vedran Ćorluka to the back post where Michael Kadlec headed the ball into the back of the net.
Bayer's more attacking style also allowed Barcelona to threaten more often and after three minutes of being level at one, the visitors were back in front. Cesc Fabregas found Alexis, who sneaked behind the defense, rounded the keeper and from a bad angle managed to sneak the ball inside the post.
Barcelona's defense again didn't have a good game and just a minute after retaking the lead Renato Augusto somehow got to the ball, after several defenders failed to clear it, fired on net, but Valdes was positioned perfectly to stop the powerful attempt.
This game also marked the return of Andres Iniesta to the starting lineup. While it was a joy to see him on the pitch again it appears he isn't ready for 90 minutes just yet and he was replaced by Thiago at the one hour mark.
With our defense looking miles from their best form Bayer felt they had the opportunity to get a more favorable result. Their second goal almost came in the 65th minute when after some good buildup André Schürrle found Gonzalo Castro on the left who fired on net but struck the post. At first it appeared Castro just missed the target, but a replay showed that Valdes got just enough of the ball to steer it wide.
But not only the hosts managed to hit the post. Messi made a brilliant run from the right and after beating three defenders he tried to chip the ball over Leno, but the keeper was saved by the woodwork. It was such a fantastic play that even the Bayer keeper felt obligated to say some words of appreciation to Messi.
The surprising omission from the Bayer starting eleven, Kießling, was finally introduced 15 minutes before the final whistle and he almost had immediate impact. Castro sent a dipping cross from the left side and the striker got his head to the ball, but his attempt was well held by Valdes.
After Kießling's opportunity to equalize it was Barcelona who had more opportunities to score. First Messi went on one of his runs and decided to shoot from the left side but Leno held his shot. Soon thereafter the brilliant Argentine appeared to outplay the defense again, this time with a pass to Cesc, but the midfielder was just offside. Then Thiago sent a corner kick to the near post where he found Alexis who headed it on goal, but Leno made a terrific save to rob the Chilean of a hat-trick.
Barca's third goal was clearly in the air and just when it looked it won't happen Messi stepped up again. In the 88th minute he found Alves on the right wing leaving the Brazilian one-on-one with Leno. At first it appeared like Alves tried to do one move to many when he decided to float a pass into the middle, but out of nowhere Messi came flying in and slotted the ball into the net.
The final five minutes were mostly uneventful and Barca deservedly won. A 3-1 lead going into the return leg, which will be played at the Camp Nou, should be enough for Barcelona to advance to the next round of the Champions League. But I won't be making any predictions about a game where there are still 90 minutes of football to be played.
Next up Valencia (again).