Nothing 'Beautiful' about Tuesday's action

BY Jamie Trecker • February 23, 2010

The knockout stage of the Champions League rolled on tonight with games in Germany and Greece. Sadly, neither game was riveting.

A disinterested-looking Barcelona sleepwalked through their first-leg fixture against Stuttgart this evening in Germany, escaping serious damage only because the quality of their opponent’s finishing was so poor.

In Greece, Bordeaux needed but one fine moment to steal a win thanks to Michael Ciani — and then to slog through 89 minutes of somnifying football.

Stuttgart entered the game on a high, a 5-1 whipping of Koln that reinvigorated Christian Gross’ stuttering side on the weekend. The hosts came out strong, with Pavel Pogrebynak and Cacau running right at Barcelona’s central tandem of Gerard Pique and Rafa Marquez, and making good headway.

Carles Puyol, dragged hither and yon by Alexander Hleb, was unable to cover, leaving a number of holes that Stefano Celozzi was able to aim crosses through.

Yet Stuttgart wouldn’t have had room to run had Yaya Toure (subbed early in the second half for an ineffective Thierry Henry) and Maxwell paid more attention to detail. As usual, Andres Iniesta was busy creating — and Lionel Messi was making himself available — but Toure was busy coughing up the ball to a set of eager Germans.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic also had a curious game. Aside from scoring, he did little to inject himself into the performance, and that was largely due to the work of Matthieu Delpierre and Serdar Tasci.

That central defensive tandem covered up another horror-show performance by 'keeper Jens Lehmann, who was busy missing balls while Stuttgart’s forwards were busy missing chances at the other end.

But after the half-time whistle, Barcelona did just enough to change the tenor of the game. A fine floated ball was knocked down in the area by Pique to Ibrahimovic, who got two shots on the Stuttgart net thanks to a classic bit of Lehmann bad luck.

The German 'keeper made his best save of the night, only to see the rebound bounce right back to the big Swede.

The goal really rocked the Germans back, and for a time it seemed Barcelona could nick another. They did not, and Pep Guardiola probably will probably have some choice words for ref Bjorn Kuipers as a result.

He ignored both a clear handball on the line by Cristian Molinaro and an ejectable offense by Sami Khedira. Khedira’s tug down on Messi wasn’t malicious, but Khedira was the last man stopping a scoring breakaway, and the midifielder rightly should be missing the next leg.

All in all, tonight’s match seemed like a missed opportunity for Stuttgart, and an easy display for Barcelona. ‘Tis a pity it wasn’t much more fun for the fans.

If the Barcelona-Stuttgart contest soured, it could have been worse. You could have sat through the debacle in Greece, which took knockout stage football to a new low.

A forgettable first half, filled with choppy play and little invention, turned especially sour for the Greeks when a perfectly judged Yoann Gourcuff free kick wide on the left was headed down and home by Michael Ciani in the second minute of stoppage time. The Olympiakos defense was cleanly beaten by the pace and direction of the delivery before Ciani outleaped his phantom markers.

That was all the French side needed for a 1-0 win that sees them put one foot into the quarterfinals as they head home in control.

Having shown nothing of the attacking flair that characterized their group play, Bordeaux was flattered to be ahead, but that wasn't to say they had any worries. Olympiakos, a side which was nearly held by an Arsenal group of youngsters on the final night of the first phase, continues to look out of place at this highest level of the European game.

Despite the vocal backing of the red-and-white capacity crowd, Olympiakos was unable to impress any pace on the game. Bordeaux seemed content to clog the midfield and break up the few attacks that the home team could muster. It was a case of Greek effort rather than style and the French had no problems dealing with it.

Laurent Blanc had said his team would not sit back, but there was little urgency in the Bordeaux game, especially once they realized they would not be under a wave of Olympiakos pressure.

Indeed, the lack of the early Greek rush seemed to both settle Bordeaux and reduce their own interest in taking chances.

The Greeks may feel a bit unlucky that they could not scramble a late equalizer, but there was nothing in their approach or execution that merited a late escape. Plainly put, the home team was too slow, too lacking in close control and, as a result, could not put consistent pressure on the visitors.

In the final analysis, Bordeaux did not need to look like the team that took Juventus apart and finished ahead of Bayern Munich in the group stages in order to be good enough tonight.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the Champions League and European football.

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