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Simon Heptinstall On February - 8 - 2012

Barcelona: Champions League Preview

The Champions League is almost with us again and defending champions Barcelona take on Bayer Leverkusen next Tuesday in the first leg of the last sixteen round. Barcelona go into the match as raining World and European champions and face a Leverkusen side weakened by injury and division in the camp. This should be the ideal tie for Barcelona who are who looking to become the first side to retain the Champions League since its inception twenty years ago.

Barcelona go into next week’s game in Germany in a slightly less commanding position than usual however. Narrow home wins in the league, dropped points on the road and a very nervous and unconvincing victory over Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey. But Barcelona remain in touch in the league (at least for now) and they are favourites to win back Spain’s domestic cup. There will be strong belief around the Nou Camp that this season will once again be a historic one. Retaining the Champions League is now their best chance of adding another chapter to the astonishing recent history. If the league title really is heading to Madrid this season then success in Europe is vital for Barcelona.

Their opponents are having something of a mixed season too and will look at these matches as nothing more than a bonus. Their progress in a group that included Chelsea and Valencia was impressive but their rather average league form sees them lying in sixth place and looking unlikely to qualify for next season’s competition. Add in injuries to key attackers Sidney Sam and Eren Derdiyok plus Michael Ballack’s unwanted status within the squad and they are far from in an ideal state to be taking on the world’s greatest side. But their home form has been impressive so far in Europe and combined with Barcelona’s patchy away form in the league this season, plus their usual habit of drawing away from home in the knockout rounds of Europe, means Bayer have reason to be optimistic that in the home leg at least they can get something and maybe pull of a shock. Though it will be a big ask.

Barcelona will have a near full squad available to them, providing they don’t pick up any injuries in the next two domestic matches. It goes without saying that Messi, Alves, Iniesta & Xavi are key to the attack and with Villa out for the season injured their importance is even greater. Expect a strong line up to play in Germany, with Guardiola showing the up most respect for their opponents. While lately he has favoured mixing the team up and giving younger players game time and allowing some of the more experienced players a chance to rest, expect a far more experienced team to play nest Tuesday. Pep will not allow the Champions League to slip away by taking any team at this stage for granted.

Looking at the Champions League as a whole it seems that this year there is little stopping Barcelona and Real Madrid from going all the way again this season. Apart from each other that is. With Man Utd and Man City failing to make it out of the group stage and with Arsenal and Chelsea both considerably weaker compared to previous years, the threat from English teams is significantly down this time around.

From Italy, Napoli appear the most suited to go far in the competition if they are able to get past Chelsea. Their attacking style of play is at great contrast to how many teams play in Europe and they will prove a stiff challenge for any team that they come up against. While both Milan sides will fancy their chances against Marseille and Arsenal respectively, neither seem strong enough to challenge Madrid and Barcelona and only a kind draw would see either team making it through to the final.

As for the rest of the teams left in, it seems that Bayern Munich might be the strongest out of them, with CSKA Moscow and Baryer Leverkusen the unlucky ones having to play in Spain. Lyon will fancy their chances against APOEL Nicosia but neither side should cause too much trouble for the big hitters from Spain. And the same should also apply for Benfica and Zenit St Petersburg who despite impressive results in their respective groups will find it hard to get past the quarter finals.

So for Barcelona the Champions League should be well within their reach, with the only side looking capable of beating them being their great rivals Real Madrid. Leverkusen are no mugs and in Germany in front of their own fans they will be quietly confident they can cause a surprise and get a result against their more illustrious opponents. But it’s hard to see how any team, let alone an injury hit Leverkusen being able to beat Barcelona over two legs. They remain favourites for this competition and it may take more Mourinho magic to stop Barcelona from winning the Champions League once again.

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