CL more important than ever for Barca

Barcelona should finish the job in their Camp Nou stadium Wednesday night as the Champions League round of 16 rolls on. But who will advance along with them? That is uncertain, as the unexpected match of the night features the tournament’s most unexpected participants: wee APOEL Nicosia.

Champions League coverage begins Wednesday on FOX Soccer at 2:00 p.m. ET. Every Champions League game is available live across the FOX family of networks, and each game is covered in real-time both here on and via Twitter on the @FoxSoccerTrax feeds. Round of 16 play will conclude next week.

The defending champions start their second leg encounter with Bayer Leverkusen holding a 3-1 advantage. Even the fact that Leverkusen seems to have come into form in the Bundesliga, as evidenced by their 2-0 win over Bayern this weekend, should not give even the most ardent German supporters much reason to think that Barcelona will give ground on their way to the quarterfinals.

APOEL Nicosia’s home contest against Olympique Lyon, however, has all the intrigue, even if it lacks the star quality of Wednesday’s other game. The Cypriots have gotten to the knockout stage with defense-first style that has irritated neutrals as much as it has frustrated opponents. Even though they begin tonight down 1-0, there is no reason to think they will change the script.

The first leg in Lyon was played just the way the Cypriots like it. Although the French side had plenty of possession, they found it virtually impossible to work their way through the packed midfield and stacked defense. Alexander Lacazette managed the only goal in the 58th minute, and even that did nothing to open up the match. If anything, it increased APOEL’s resolve, and its usual tactic of introducing Gustavo Manduca late in an attempt to snatch a counter-attack goal nearly paid off.

APOEL has some talent. The Cypriots introduced Europe to `keeper Dinoisios Chiotis, the backbone of their defense, and those watching the group stages have seen that Ailton is one of the best lone front-runners in the game. He may not have the speed or flair of other center forwards, but Ailton’s ability to hold the ball up top and to poach from the most meager scraps is how APOEL has gotten this far. Manduca and Ivan Trickovski have also proved good enough to unsettle defenses.

What Lyon has in its favor is the fact they will be under no illusions about what type of match they face. They will be under some pressure to get the away goal which would virtually clinch the tie and their place in the quarterfinals. Yet throwing too many people forward is exactly the situation which has created problems for APOEL’s opponents.

Further, even though APOEL won its group and has proved that it very much belongs in the competition, the traditional French power will face plenty of pressure to avoid being ousted by a side still regarded as minnows. It could be a fun one.

If APOEL is the minnow that has proved it can swim with the best, Barcelona is the whale against whom everybody else is measured. And that’s why Leverkusen’s task seems gargantuan.

In the first leg the Germans were holding their own until just before halftime when Alexis Sanchez struck to put the champs ahead. Michal Kadlec got Leverkusen level seven minutes after the interval, but it required only three minutes for Barca to get back on top. Lionel Messi’s usual contribution with two minutes remaining gave Barca what seems to be an unbeatable margin.

And, oh yes, Xavi did not play in that first game in Germany and Andres Iniesta lasted only the first hour. Barcelona’s embarrassment of riches simply covered that up. They will have to stretch that a bit more as Sanchez is out for the next two weeks (thigh) along with David Villa (broken leg) and Eric Abidal (groin). Xavi, however, is expected to return.

Leverkusen aren’t pikers. In fact, given another draw this German side might well have been thinking about the quarterfinals, themselves. Lars Bender, Stefan Kiessling and Andre Schuerrle are good at the head of the attack and Bayer has every reason to believe that a top four finish in the Bundesliga remains possible. They are 11 points adrift of leaders Borussia Dortmund but only four back of fourth place Schalke. And yet, they seem to have little hope here.

Perhaps even more of a problem for Leverkusen – and the rest of the clubs who would like to wrest the crown from Barcelona this time – the Champions League has taken on added significance for Pep Guardiola’s bunch. Though partisans won’t admit it, Barcelona’s Spanish League title run appears to be over. Their arch-rival, Real Madrid, hold a 10-point lead which shows no signs of dissipating.

Yes, the Spanish Cup is there to won for the team used to winning everything, but it would be especially important this season if Barcelona can retain their European title, even if they must watch Real Madrid celebrate the league.