Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Game, Set, and Match: Barcelona 3 - Bayer Leverkusen 1

photo by Evil Erinvia PhotoRee

Barcelona traveled to Germany to take on Leverkusen last night as the Champions League started up again, the latest round a visceral reminder of the early and unexpected exit that Manchester United was dealt when this tournament was last played. Without a rooting interest to compel me to watch the proceedings, I adopted more of a neutral stance when choosing which game to watch this round, and found myself viewing Barca's visit to Germany in search of an answer the age old question: does speed beat height?

There have been several truisms in the Pep Guardiola era at Barcelona: one is the almost universal admiration for the "Barcelona way" of football, a 21st century re-boot of Johan Cruyff's Clockwork Orange.  A lesser known but equally valid truism, however, is that Barcelona has struggled on the road in the Champions League over the past several years.  And if their problems on the road in this competition weren't enough, all is not necessarily well for the Blaugrana even in La Liga these days, with Barca  falling ten points off the pace set by their arch rivals from Madrid after their latest loss this weekend. Would that poor road record and weak run of league form carry over into the team's performance on Tuesday -- could there be another shock Champions League exit in store? -- or were the Blaugrana merely playing possum, waiting to turn on the afterburners only when needed?

Barcelona saw plenty of possession as the game kicked off, weaving their way in and around their taller Teutonic counterparts, while stringing their tiki taka passing game along, the ball moving this way and that, one ball following the other as regularly as the beat of a metronome.  At the halfway point of the game's first 45 minutes, Barcelona's possession bordered on 80%.  For their part, Leverkusen countered with their irregular and lurching runs forward, often forgetting to take the ball along with them.  The Germans were rudely and repeatedly reminded of the importance of that latter action as they were forced to beat hasty and rather regular retreats to stop yet another Barcelona attack on the home side's goal.

If the 30,000 German fans had come to see the visitors play football, then surely they were sated by the 40th minute, having watched the men in green complete approximately seven passes for every one completed by the home side.  But if Leverkusen thought they had held their visitors' dominating ball retention to an interesting but ultimately meaningless statistic, they were sadly mistaken: with less than four minutes to go in the half it took only one Lionel Messi flick of the foot to find Alexis Sanchez goal bound, as the visitors finally found a point to go along with their statistical domination of the proceeding so far.

Leverkusen countered in the second half by pushing higher up the pitch and -- like a stretching turtle -- coming out of their defensive shell to bring a bit of pressure on the visitors' goal. The offensive effort paid almost an immediate dividend, as the Germans' aerial game found the net, Leverkusen's Michal Kadlec easily outjumping the diminutive Barcelona defense to bring some life to the contest -- and the heretofore somewhat dispirited crowd -- and tie the contest at one.  At this point, height did indeed look as if it might give speed a challenge yet.

Having hauled themselves back into the game for all of three minutes, however, Leverkusen were totally undone by another burst of pace from Sanchez, passed through on goal by Cesc Fabregas, with the Chilean at the double when his quick swerve around the Leverkusen rookie 'keeper restored the visitors' advantage.

The Germans rattled the post minutes later, denied an equalizer by only the ball's cruel deflection off Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes' fingertips, as the home side sought rather desperately to force their way back into the argument. This push forward did not come without risk, however, as the Leverkusen flank was now exposed to bits of trickery like the one almost pulled off by Lionel Messi in the 72nd minute, the Argentine magician jinking over a German defender before ringing the post.

Substitute Stefan Kiesling nearly found immediate joy before his header was denied by Valdes, as the game opened up even more in the final ten minutes. When Lionel Messi was spotted by Danni Alves only a minute from time, however, it was game, set and match for the Blaugrana, the little one's hustle and determination never more apparent than on his final run toward goal. With three road goals to accompany their journey back to Spain, Pep and the boys could be confident that the second leg was now a mere formality, and begin focusing on their next real task: the quarterfinals.

Oh, and by the way, the answer to the question posed at the top of this entry was a resounding yes.  Speed kills.

This is farlieonfootie for February 15.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure what a photo of FOF on the tennis court has to do with any of this, but hey, I'm glad the website staff got it in there.

    -- Carlos T. (I'm back you dogs!)