Here we go; back to work in the Champions League.
FC Barcelona will look to move on to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League this Wednesday against German club Bayer Leverkusen. With a 3-1 lead in the aggregate and the road goal advantage, it's safe to assume el blaugrana will move on.
Don't expect Bayer to just lay down, though. Needing a 3-0, 4-1 and so on type of victory, the first 20 minutes will be the most important for them.
That being said, it's pretty much over for them.
As for Barcelona, with La Liga essentially done and the Copa Del Rey final two months away, Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi and the rest of the Catalans have put their chips on the table and are all in for the Champions League title.
So who will start the game?
Here's what I think will be the starting XI to dispatch Bayer Leverkusen.
There’s no doubt that Victor Valdes will start the game against Bayer Leverkusen. Anyone who thinks Jose Manuel Pinto may start is as crazy as those people that believe the rumor that Pep Guardiola will coach in Mexico next year.
Dani Alves has stepped up his hustle these past weeks and will be on the back line to continue his exceptional play.
Pep Guardiola will bring in Javier Mascherano as a CB. Carles Puyol will be out, as he has been having issues with his left thigh. El jefecito has played well when he has been called upon to play CB. Look for Bayer to test Mascherano’s speed when attacking, as well as pressure Javier when he has the ball.
Gerard Pique has had a bad couple of days to say the least. First, he gets sent off in the match versus Sporting on Saturday, and now, La Liga’s Refereeing Technical Committee is calling for Pique to be suspended for suggesting that referee Carlos Velasco Carballo had premeditated his sending off. Gerard needs something good this week, and he’ll get a chance to have a good day, as he is expected to get the start against Leverkusen.
With Eric Abidal still recovering from an injury, look for Adriano to start at left back. The Brazilian played the position in Saturday’s game versus Sporting and will continue to have the potential to come up and send in crosses.
Some people would think that an older player like Xavi should be considered to get some rest when you’re up 3-1 on aggregate. But with La Liga essentially done and La Copa Del Rey to be settled in May, Barcelona’s main focus is on the Champions League, and Pep will not want to take any chances with resting players. Xavi will get the start as he looks to lead the midfield as usual.
Don Andres Iniesta is arguably the player that is deserved of rest. He played 46 minutes in the friendly match against Venezuela last week and played the entire game versus Sporting Gijon. If Thiago Alcantara was 100 percent, perhaps he would start and Iniesta would rest.
With Thiago recovering from injury and the importance of putting Bayer out early in the game, expect Pep to start Iniesta and for him to rest a bit before coming in as a substitute in Sunday’s game against Racing Santander.
Like Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets is coming off yellow-card suspension and will get the start against Bayer. Busey is essential for the mid, especially with Mascherano playing CB. Javier, being technically out of position, has tendencies to make bad passes when playing CB, and his lack of height (5’9”) leads to issues with tall forwards and their headers. Bayer’s forwards are tall; most of them 6’1” or above.
Look for Busey to drop back plenty of times to help the back line.
Cesc Fàbregas’ play has improved these past few weeks, and he will get the start at left wing. Watch out for Cesc to play a bit back at LW, as he will look to set up passes to Lionel Messi. Barcelona needs Cesc and Messi to regain their on-the-pitch chemistry in order for them to go deep in the tournament. Look for Cesc to facilitate Xavi, who has recently been coming forward more often (see Xavi’s goal against Sporting).
Lionel Messi missed last week’s Liga match due to accumulation of yellow cards. Messi will be ready to dominate on the grand stage that is the Champions League. With a 3-1 aggregate advantage, look for Messi to be a bit more riskier than if the aggregate was 1-1. Expect him to hold on to the ball even longer than usual, which he does a bit too many times.
Perhaps the player that needs a good game the most is Pedro Rodríguez. The Canarian has struggled this season with injuries, bad play and of course, being replaced in the starting lineup by Alexis Sanchez. With Alexis out for the next two weeks, this is the perfect opportunity for Pedro to remind everyone that he is still one of the most dynamic players in Spain.
To me, Pedro not only needs a good game, but he needs a goal in this game. I’m not saying he’s going to score; I’m just saying he needs a goal to gain much-needed confidence.
I don’t expect a blowout, but I do expect Barça to dominate ball possession as usual. Bayer will give it a good shot of a comeback in the first 20 minutes, but if Barça go up 1-0 within 20 minutes, expect Bayer to sit back, knowing their chances of winning are finally over.
Don’t expect Barcelona to go for 5-0, although anything is possible at the Camp Nou. One goal will put the nail in the coffin, and Pep may begin subbing in players in the second half.
I see a 2-0 win for el blaugrana, with one of them, if not both, coming from Messi. The man is hungry to make a statement to every other team left in the tournament and he will end Bayer Leverkusen’s run.
We’ll see who Barcelona faces off in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League when the official draw takes place on March 16.
Visca el Barça!
Thanks for reading! Look out for my next column later this week.
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