The first week of the Champions League knock-out stages has begun. As usual lots of things to discuss from the matches. So let's first look at the game in Germany between Leverkusen and Barça.
Bayer Leverkusen, 1–F.C. Barcelona, 3
The first leg of this knock-out round of the Champions League went as expected. FC Barcelona were much better than Bayer Leverkusen who gave their opponents too much respect in the first half. The German side started with a 1-4-1-4-1 system, dropped off deep in their own half and hoping that Barca would make a mistake and they could surprise them on the counter attack but with no real belief.
Barca had 78% possession as opposed to 22% of their opponent, although they could not break through the numbers of players that Leverkusen had centrally and deep.
Alexis Sanchez tried to get behind the defence and Messi was free to look for numerical superiority in certain areas. So the Germans worked hard not to leave any gaps. The only way Guardiola’s men could be taken by surprise was at set plays and, as we have said, a faint hope of a good counter attack.
One strange stat we can point out was in the 34th minute; Bayer made 55 passes to FC Barcelona’s 339 if we take the UEFA statistics as correct.
In the 40th minute, when Leverkusen got forward to dispute a long ball and try to win the second ball, Messi found Alexis who was making a run behind the defence and scored to make it 0-1.
As if it could be any other way, the second half began with Barcelona keeping the ball, playing on the ground starting with Valdes. And then came the tactical change, Leverkusen began to press higher. The Germans realised that if they stayed deep they would only concede again so they decided to press higher. And sometimes they were successful, scored with a header after the ball had been in the air and several challenges had been made. At this they were better than Barca and put in a good cross with a finish by Kadlec which made it 1-1 and gave them some hope which disappeared a few minutes later, due to them being higher up the pitch when Alexis again ran behind defenders and made it 1-2.
Guardiola took Iniesta off and put on Thiago (60’). Leverkusen decided that their goalkeeper would play long, to try to win the ball in the air and the second balls followed by pressing high. Because of this pressing, they had a quick counter attack with a shot which hit the post and could have made the game more interesting if it had gone in. Messi though decided to make an appearance with a great piece of play, a nutmeg on a defender and a shot against the post which deserved better. Messi wanted to score and thanks to Daniel Alves being a bit selfish, he has nearly finished off the tie, although this is football , though overall you feel that Barcelona are much better than Leverkusen.
Lyon, 1–Apoel, 0
At Lyon, with their usual 1-4-2-3-1, they found it difficult to break down Apoel’s defence. The French side is quite balanced and counter attack well, and perhaps because of this, when they scored their goal they decided to wait until Apoel came out a bit more to try to surprise them. In the end they scored through Lacazette when he was playing on the left, moving inside on his stronger right foot and he stood out in the game, and they kept a clean sheet which is always important.
They play a lot in the wide areas so that Bastos and Lacazette can unbalance the defence on the wings. Lisandro up front or Ederson between lines are given the responsibility of carrying the attack.
As for Apoel, also playing 1-4-2-3-1 which became 1-4-5-1 defending, are a team who work well in defence, with close lines and work together to regain the ball and try to counter attack if they can.
Helio Pinto holds the ball well in midfield and can finds a free team mate. Ailton up front is quite isolated and tries to keep the centre backs occupied or hold the ball so that Helder Sousa can support as the link between midfield and attack.
The second leg is finely balanced and it will be interesting to see how the teams approach the game given the usual Apoel game plan, which is more defensive and yet they must score to go through.
AC Milan, 4–Arsenal, 0
The score is a reflection of the game. A great Milan, reliable in defence and lethal in attack against an Arsenal with few ideas. The Italian side played with the classic 1-4-3-1-2 (which only changed to 1-4-4-2 when Ambrosini came on for Robinho at 4-0), with Van Bommel, Nocerino and Seedorf in midfield, Boateng as the link and Robinho and Ibra up front. The London side, for their part, played 1-4-2-3-1 with little penetration in attack and lacking defensive intensity. They couldn’t deal with Ibrahimovic on his game (a goal from a penalty and two assists), Robinho (two goals) and Boateng (one goal). The mobility of the forwards, along with hard work from the rest of the team (especially Emanuelson who had come on for the injured Seedorf in the 8th minute) was enough to beat Wenger’s team. The full backs, Antonini and Abate, ran up and down the wings and in the centre the number of players ensured that Milan won almost all the second balls. If we add to this that any chances Van Persie created were answered by Abbiati, this would explain a scoreline that renders the tie practically over. Arsene Wenger tried everything, he brought on Henry and Chamberlain, moved Van Persie deeper and then Ramsey to the middle to get more quality on the pitch…But it was not enough to halt a good Milan team. The Italians were better and rightfully won the game.
Zenit, 3–Benfica, 2
Zenit started with a 1-4-5-1 system. They are a team with good ideas and an interesting counter attack. They also have good attacking movements from their second line, the two goals by Shirkov and Semak came from this area. They read the match well, regaining the ball in their own half and attacking quickly with good movement behind the defence. They had a high tempo and good mobility in the wide areas. Their defensive problems came mainly from the uncertainty of their goalkeeper, Zhevnov, who was indecisive at times, and from the lateral movements of their full backs, Anyukov and Hubocan. Generally, it is a more solid defensive block in the centre than in the wide areas.
As for Benfica they started with 1-4-4-2 and with the introduction of Aimar, switched to 1-4-2-3-1 more or less. In the first 20 minutes they controlled the match and showed their good technique and abilities in general. However, gradually they lost this control and their intensity and general tempo dropped, losing the ball too quickly and therefore they became vulnerable. Good build up wide with Gaitan and B Cesar but insecure in defence with the two centre backs, Luisao and Garay having problems behind them and the two full backs not adjusting their cover to support.
The 3-2 result is not bad for both teams. One goal may be good enough for either team but if Zenit gets one then it makes it much more difficult. So the decisions of both coaches on how to approach the match will be the first thing to watch in the next game.