Barcelona recorded their first away win in the Round of 16 under Guardiola and will take a 3-1 lead back to the Nou Camp for the return leg on March 7th. Sanchez (41., 55.) and Messi (88.) scored the goals for the visitors with Kadlec’s equalizer (52.) a mere formality in what already looks like a decided tie. Barcelona have not lost against a German opponent in 15 matches. The last time they did was back in 2001 against Bayer Leverkusen ironically enough, somewhat of a positive omen for the Germans. That said, Barcelona have scored an average of four goals per game in away matches this season in the Champions League so Leverkusen had a big task ahead of them.
At the end of the day, Barcelona’s quality was simply too much for Leverkusen to overcome. Dutt approached the match two different ways, defending deep in the first half and taking a more offensive approach in the second, neither helping Leverkusen’s cause much despite an industrious effort.
Line ups and Tactics
Dutt surprised everyone with his line up, an ambiguous striker-less formation that appeared defensive on paper. Kiessling was benched and instead Schürrle played the role of sole striker with Castro and Augusto supporting him. Behind them was the trio of Reinartz, Rolfes and Bender, meant to hold off and match Barcelona’s famed midfield. Because of his work rate, Bender had the license to get forward and drift out wide whenever necessary. Depending on how you read it, it could have been a 4-2-3-1 as well as a 4-6-0. Guardiola meanwhile had to do without both Xavi (injury) and Pique (rested) but welcomed Busquets back into the starting line up. Mascherano partnered Puyol in central defense and Adriano filled in up top on the left in their well known 4-3-3.
Bayer bunker – the result being an eventless first half
The first 45 minutes were something typical of an encounter with Barcelona. As most sides try to do, or have done, Leverkusen sat deep and tried to hold off the Spaniards, hoping to then catch them on the break. For the most part, it worked. Barcelona naturally had the lions share of possession, nearly 80% at one point, and characteristically strung together pass after pass, trying to probe Leverkusen and find an opening. Leverkusen did an admirable job defending for much of the half but had problems holding on to the ball when chances to break presented themselves. They only completed 56 of their 90 passes in the first half hour. In contrast, Barcelona completed nearly four times as much, 340 out of their 375 passes.
Leverkusen were aggressive and tried to press Barcelona high up the pitch but ultimately just ended up defending with ten men in their own half. At times, Schürrle was the only Leverkusen player in the opponent’s half. For all their offensive ineptitude, they did defended resolutely. Leverkusen were positionally disciplined and held their concentration well amidst Barcelona’s persistent pressure. So much so in fact that Barcelona struggled to penetrate Leverkusen’s backline and were forced into giving the ball away quite a lot themselves.
Unfortunately for Leverkusen, the combination of their sloppy passing and Barcelona’s constant pressure was an unsustainable tactic. Shortly before the break, Leverkusen lost possession around the half way line and with Kadlec caught up the field, Sanchez latched onto a brilliant ball by Messi and slotted it under the legs of Leno. Barcelona had completed 480 passes by the end of the half compared to just 88 from Leverkusen. Moreover, the strategy of chasing the ball nonstop was gradually exhausting the Leverkusen players and only sufficient in getting a draw at best. Dutt now needed to alter his approach to get anything out of the game.
Leverkusen attack and suffer the consequences
When Leverkusen beat Barcelona in 2001 they too were trailing 1-0 at the half only to come back and win it 2-1 in the end so a comeback was not completely out of the question. Knowing they’d need a result at home to have any chance of progressing, Leverkusen were a bit more intrepid in the second half but by doing so opened themselves up even more defensively. At the very least, Leverkusen were going to at least create a few goal scoring chances, something they failed to do at all in the first half. That required both fullbacks to get forward more because up to then they had both been pinned back almost completely by Adriano, Alves and Sanchez.
The initiative proved fruitful though and their two fullbacks worked to get the equalizer shortly after the break. Corluka dribbled to the end-line and sent a cross past both Valdes and the Barcelona center backs. Waiting behind Alves on the other side was Kadlec who rose above everyone else to head the ball in the back of the net. Just like that Leverkusen were back in the game, their tactical change seemingly justified. But in football just as in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. By pushing forward Leverkusen left their already vulnerable back line even more exposed and just three minutes later Fabregas played a through ball that split both Kadlec and Friedrich to find Sanchez. The Chilean dribbled past Leno and restored Barcelona’s lead.
Instead of reverting back to their defensive tactics, Leverkusen bravely persisted in getting forward and Augusto came close to another equalizer but his shot from the right was saved by Valdes. Seven minutes later Castro was unlucky not to get Leverkusen’s second after his shot from the left beat Valdes but not the goal post. The game was now completely open with both sides taking their chances at every turn. Messi easily beat Kadlec and Schwaab a couple of minutes later but his lob over Leno was too wide. On the other end Castro floated in a cross to Kiessling, who had just come on, but the striker’s header was not powerful enough to beat Valdes. The tie was effectively decided two minutes from time then as Alves and Messi combined brilliantly, the Brazilian’s cross headed in by the diminutive Argentine.
Without the necessary quality across the pitch or the right preparation, defending alone is insufficient in beating this Barcelona side. People will inevitably criticize Dutt for taking a more defensive approach in the first half but when was the last time a side beat Barcelona by attacking them outright in the knockout stage of the Champions League? Dutt took the only path he could have all things considered and it nearly worked were it not for an isolated error in the first half. The rest played out as expected in the second. Leverkusen’s offensive approach delivered Barcelona’s two goals on a silver platter and despite a more courageous effort it was still not enough to get a desirable result.
A certain degree of reality has to then be applied that takes into consideration both the difference in personnel, the nature of the opponent as well as what is required to do well in this competition. In other words, Leverkusen were dammed if they did and dammed if they didn’t in this match. Only 3 out of 154 teams in the history of European competitions have overturned a 3-1 first leg deficit so the odds of an upset in the second leg are seemingly insurmountable. Barcelona will have all the breathing room to play their game comfortably. The question then becomes, which approach will Dutt take knowing his chances are slim to none?