Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Champions League - Sanchez double puts Barcelona in control

Two goals from Alexis Sanchez ensured Barcelona enjoyed a 3-1 victory away at Bayer Leverkusen in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie.
The defending European champions dominated for large periods at the BayArena and are now firm favourites to progress to the quarter-finals for the fifth season in succession thanks to a fine full Champions League debut from their Chilean forward, and another virtuoso performance from Lionel Messi.
Sanchez, who struggled with injury during the group stages, opened the scoring after 41 minutes of a first half in which Leverkusen were lamentably negative on home turf. However, the Bundesliga side opened up in the second half and equalised through Michal Kadlec before a quick response from Sanchez put Barca back in front.
Messi produced a superb performance when spraying the ball about and executing some trademark dribbles from his free role in attack, but having earlier hit the post finally secured a deserved goal, and a 28th in his past 29 Champions League starts, when converting with two minutes remaining.
Barcelona had never ceded the majority of possession in their previous 44 Champions League games under Pep Guardiola and it became quickly apparent that particular statistic would not be in jeopardy in Germany. While Barca were as accomplished as ever with the ball at their feet, Leverkusen looked hesitant and unconvincing in front of their home supporters.
The consequence was that the Bundesliga side spent much of the first half chasing the ball and were unable to seriously trouble Victor Valdes in the away goal. Indeed, as Barca monopolised possession and restricted Leverkusen to only sporadic snatches of opportunity, it became apparent how they were able to restrict their opponents to just seven shots on target during the duration of the group stage.
As excellent as they have been in Europe, unconvincing performances away from home are the reason Barca sit 10 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga and in Germany they struggled to replicate the brilliance that has accompanied many of their performances at Camp Nou.
Messi, hunted down in packs whenever he got the ball, fired one shot at Bernd Leno after taking a ball over the top from Dani Alves on his chest, while Adriano, stationed out wide on the left with Pedro sat on the bench, drove another effort wildly off target.
But with Leverkusen remaining remarkably subdued, it only took one moment of excellence from Messi to open them up after 41 minutes: the forward took possession of the ball inside the centre circle before flicking it into the right channel with a glorious pass off the outside of his boot.
Both Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas charged forward to meet the ball but it was the former who got there first and he fired a shot between the legs of Leno for his first Champions League goal. It was just reward for the only side with the aptitude or intent to try and use the ball constructively.
But despite failing to create a single chance in the first half, Leverkusen were level after seven minutes of the second.Vedran Corluka, a January signing from Tottenham, did superbly well to get away from Eric Abidal and hook a cross in for Kadlec, who arrived at the back post and leapt above Sanchez to steer his header home.
Their lead lasted all of three minutes. Sanchez was afforded too much space when racing onto a perfectly-weighted through-ball from Fabregas and the Chile international took a touch to go wide of the onrushing Leno before converting with a neat finish inside the near post.
What had previously been a rather sanitised contest suddenly erupted and Leverkusen caught the new mood perfectly when quickly responding with another excellent chance. Renato Augusto managed to bundle his way past a number of Barca bodies before finding enough space in the box to fire in a low effort that forced Valdes into a smart low save to his right.
The Barca keeper, underemployed in the first half, was found to be in excellent form again after 65 minutes as Gonzalo Castro raced onto a headed pass and fired a firm low effort across the keeper. Valdes flung out his left arm and got the faintest of touches on the ball to turn it against the base of the post.
Leverkusen were benefiting from a far more positive attitude than that which was on display during the first half, but they could never negate the inherent threat posed by Messi and on 73 minutes he was desperately unlucky not to add a third. Coming in off the right, Messi darted between two markers with a turn of pace and lifted the ball over Leno, only to see his effort come off the outside of the near post.
A seventh goal in six Champions League games this season appeared to have eluded the Argentina star, who then forced Leno into a low save after driving into the box from a central position and firing back across goal.
But, after Stefan Kiessling and Sanchez had exchanged headed chances, Messi did etch his name on the scoresheet. He was the creator once again, playing in Alves with a sliding pass, and then raced forward some 25 yards to get on the end of the right back's unselfish cross to slide the ball home.
Messi became the most prolific South American in the history of European competition with 45 goals and in the process all but ensured Barca will progress to the quarter-finals following the second leg at Camp Nou.

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