Barcelona, Lyon post 'effective' nights
It wasn't vintage, but it was enough.
Barcelona overcame their road woes to record an impressive 3-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, virtually assuring themselves a place in the Champions League quarterfinals.
In tonight's other match, APOEL stifled Lyon for long spells, but a goal from Alexandre Lacazette finally broke the Cypriots resistance, giving the French giants a slim edge heading into the second leg. Both those games will be played on March 7.
The stats will tell you that the Catalans dominated Leverkusen from the get-go in Germany, with Barcelona controlling possession nearly 75 percent of the time and completing nearly four times as many passes. Your eyes would have told you something a bit different. Once Leverkusen shook off their fear, they gave a patchy and ragged Barcelona side all it wanted for a while and were unlucky not to have that reflected in the score sheet.
Make no mistake, Barcelona were clearly the better side. Leverkusen looked simply terrified for long stretches, abandoning lone striker Andre Schurrle up top and switching from their 4-2-3-1 formation to something better resembling a 9-1-0. The home team were unable to put any pressure on Barcelona's backline, rarely ventured beyond the center circle, and were forced to soak up consistent, if imprecise pressure, all night long.
Yet that imprecision — evidence that Barcelona are starting to show some vulnerability —prevented the defending champions from fully grasping this tie early on. In fact, it took a moment of brilliance from Lionel Messi with four minutes remaining in the first half to break what had become a grim deadlock, in a downpour that saw more passes and attempts go awry than we are used to seeing from the consensus best club of this era.
Messi’s little flick from the halfway line to Alexis Sanchez sparked the game to life. It was the kind of improbable take we are now accustomed to from him; a pass made on the outside of his left boot from inside the center circle that ranged downfield to the running duo of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas peeled off, Sanchez fired through goalkeeper Bernd Leno's legs, and the ball came to rest inside the far post.
That might have been game over right there. But, it wasn't.
After the break, Robin Dutt’s men stopped playing scared, put pressure on a shaky Carles Puyol, and the result was a fine headed goal from defender Michal Kadlec. Former Spurs man Vedran Corluka raced around Eric Abidal for the cross, and suddenly, the sodden BayArena burst to life.
But Barcelona responded as champions do. Sanchez restored order only three minutes later, with Fabregas feeding him for his second goal of the night. It was a classic quick-start move from Barcelona following a Lars Bender foul at midfield on Sergio Busquets, with Sanchez keeping his balance brilliantly to swerve his shot around a helpless Leno, who was on the turf.
But the goal of the night came late, when Daniel Alves declined to shoot and instead returned the ball to Messi, charging hard at the net. His volley off the inside of his left boot was a dagger, giving Barcelona three precious away goals and arguably leaving Leverkusen wondering if they should even bother to purchase air travel for the return leg.
It was not a classic Barcelona show, but it was enough for a team that has begun to hear questions about its strength and depth. They are, of course, currently losing the eternal death match that is their rivalry with Real Madrid, sitting a full 10 points behind them in La Liga.
While they have made their 12th cup final (Copa del Rey) in 3½ years, the grind is clearly wearing on them. They lacked crispness and looked tired tonight. Still, they did enough to make the second-leg appear a formality, and they are on course to retain their European crown.
In our other match, a 58th-minute strike from Alexandre Lacazette that took a big cut off the back of defender Paulo Jorge, was the only goal at the Stade de Gerland. It was enough to give Lyon a 1-0 first-leg advantage against what one might charitably call APOEL the “defensive specialists” of the tournament.
The match was hardly a wide-open affair. Instead, the crowd got another look at how Ivan Jovanovic's Cypriots lay out a game plan and doggedly stick to it, no matter the score line. Tonight, it took 87 minutes before Gustavo Manduca even took APOEL's first shot and it wasn't until stoppage time that the visitors managed a couple of consecutive corner kicks.
Lyon's defense was never troubled, but they didn’t exactly light things up, either. Their attack sputtered like a car low on fuel, and it took a halftime adjustment from Remi Garde to get their engine running.
That change was switching Michel Bastos from the left to right side and pulling Lisandro Lopez a bit deeper off the front of the attack. That created the space that Lyon would exploit for the only goal.
The goal: Cris made the run up the inside left channel, found Lacazette with a good pass into the box, and the youngster who emerged from the FIFA Under-20 World Cup as a star, stepped inside the defender and hit his shot. Paulo Jorge was bending but could not avoid it, and the change of direction denied keeper Dionisios Chiotis any time to react.
Lyon might have scored a second just a minute later, when Bastos was in a one-on-one match against Chiotis, but failed to open his body to shoot left-footed and did not have the angle to succeed.
Whether you like it or not, they’ll do it all again in three weeks at Nicosia (and yes, that does sound vaguely like a threat). One hopes the Cypriots will think more about attacking.