Ah, the UEFA Champions League. Isn’t it ironic that when things have looked a bit glum for FC Barcelona this season, we have turned to the most difficult competition in World Football for comfort? Tomorrow evening the Blaugrana will take to the field, looking to forget all about that 10 point gap to first place and certainly to forget about the growing furore that Tony Freixa created last night with his carefully worded statement. However, more importantly, Barcelona will be looking to progress to the last eight of the world’s most prestigious competition for the fifth consecutive season.
That is some feat I’m sure you will all agree, but I have to argue that this year’s competition looks significantly weaker, even more so if the English contingent manage to somehow fight back from the jaws of defeat. Bayern Munich were one of the favourites for the entire competition, but face a shock exit to Basel, while it isn’t even concrete that Real Madrid will progress against CSKA Moscow. Of the remaining sides in the competition, even before any team is eliminated, I can only foresee Real Madrid or possibly AC Milan causing Barca even the slightest concern. As for Napoli, they were dispatched 5-0 in a pre-season friendly, and in a knockout scenario, I doubt they could effectively challenge us with their gameplan. Surpassing Bayer Leverkusen is hardly the greatest achievement of the past four years, but could be as hard as it gets until the final, draw permitting of course.
But hey, who’s complaining?
Depending on the score from the first leg, I figured this could have been an excellent time to send the youngsters out, much like Guardiola did against BATE Borisov, but knowing Pep, and considering that the league is out of reach they will have to wait for another opportunity. The opposition on Saturday is only Racing Santander, meaning Pep Guardiola will field as strong a team as possible to secure qualification.
Victor Valdes will start in goal as per usual and if he can keep Leverkusen off the scoresheet, it will be his fourth clean sheet from seven Champions League appearances this season. Considering that two of those matches in which Valdes conceded were against Milan, that makes for a fearsome record. Of course, some credit must also go to the defense in front of him, but we all know that Valdes is a key aspect of this team and our success in the past few years. Personally, I struggle to believe Barcelona are making more individual errors in defense this season, instead I feel that those errors are just leading to more goals, partially because they are occurring closer to goal. Anyway, with a bit of luck, there will be no errors tomorrow so that is irrelevant.
While the goal-keeper is always a sure-fire pick, I usually have trouble predicting the defense, and recent events have made it even more difficult to guess Guardiola’s mind frame. Does he start with Gerard Pique in a clear showing of solidarity, hoping that either Pique is not pre-occupied with all the talk surrounding his comments or that Geri is simply not allowed to lose focus by partner Carles Puyol? Or will Pep think that Pique is not in the right frame of mind and opt for Javier Mascherano, who almost always is, even if that will fuel further speculation about Geri’s future? It’s a difficult choice, but I think Pep will place his faith in the usual suspects: Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. While many have criticised the ex-Manchester United defender, I simply cannot remember the last game he lost when paired up with Puyol.
Then, if you factor in Dani Alves and Eric Abidal, I am sure that the only match these four have lost when starting together is the dead-rubber game against Wisla Krakow some years ago now. Unfortunately, Eric Abidal is unlikely to feature tomorrow, so I could see Pep switching to the 3-4-3, but reckon that he will play it safe and opt for Adriano at left-back. On Saturday night, he was one of the only players that took up the mantle of Lionel Messi’s direct runs, and his unselfish attitude in the opposition box laid the opening goal on a plate for Andres Iniesta. If Bayer sit back as they did in the first leg, Adriano could prove vital.
Sergio Busquets will return at defensive midfield after serving his one-match suspension in league competition and it is unfortunate that it will mean Seydou Ketia is demoted to the bench. The Malian was excellent against Gijon as much as it pains me to admit it, so to see him dropped to the bench is a little harsh, but when Busquets is his replacement, I can get over it! Xavi and Andres Iniesta are beginning to get back to their very best, combining as only they can, thus keeping Cesc Fabregas out of the midfield equation.
However, while Cesc is without an assured position in midfield, the injury to Alexis Sanchez could see him included in the starting lineup. Whether it is behind the attack in a kind of 4-3-1-2 or whether Andres Iniesta is shifted out wide left in a 4-3-3 with Cesc taking his place in midfield, Cesc is almost certain to start tomorrow, although part of me thinks that Pep could have given Thiago another run out at left wing after he destroyed Santos in the very same position, but he is unavailable with a shinbone injury.
Lionel Messi will return to the starting lineup barring some catastrophe and La Pulga is arguably in his best form of the season: scoring nine goals in his past four matches, including a hat-trick in his last match which was for the Argentine national side. He is the leading scorer in this season’s Champions League with seven goals and last time out against Leverkusen, he broke the competition record for number of goals scored in the knockout phase. If he nets tomorrow, it will be his 20th strike in the knockout stages, two more than any other player in history.
Lionel Messi is only 24.
Oh, and Leo is the joint second top "assister" in this season’s competition with four assists, while Isaac Cuenca is one behind on three. Messi also tops the list for shots on target, with 20, meaning he scores with 35% of his shots on target in the competition, while media darling Robin Van Persie only has three goals, converting 25% of his shots on target. For all those suggesting RVP could actually be the best striker in the world, or even among the top three, the Champions League is the only competition providing truly reliable statistics on a player’s ability.
So, Messi will start tomorrow, most likely with Pedro and Cesc Fabregas for support. While La Liga continues to frustrate, the Champions League will provide us with a respite.
Predicted Line-up (4-3-3): Victor Valdes; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, Adriano Correia; Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas; Andres Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez, Lionel Messi
Match Prediction: I expect Bayer to play a little more offensively, and pay for it. Another 3-1 win for Barca.
Wayin on the match with your prediction below!