Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Stuttgart 1-1 Barcelona: Champions Pass Tough German Test

Crucial away goal leaves Barca in the driving seat.

Stuttgart gave Champions League holders Barcelona a real test at the Mercedes Benz Arena but the champions will be happy with the result given they trailed on the score board and in general play at half-time.

The Germans engineered a well deserved lead midway through the first half as Brazil-born striker Cacau headed them in front but ten minutes after the interval the scores were level when Zlatan Ibrahimovic stroked past Jens Lehmann for a vital away goal.

Pep Guardiola had spoken beforehand about his side needing to raise their game against the German outfit and that certainly proved the case as Christian Gross' side looked a vastly different team to the one that stumbled and stuttered through the group stages under the stewardship of Markus Babbel.

While Barca dominated possession, probing for an opening in typical fashion, it was Stuttgart that were demonstrating the necessary desire and looked the greater threat with the physical presence of Pavel Progrebnyak and Cacau giving the Barca rearguard plenty of food for thought.

Although their early endeavors never really stretched Victor Valdes, Cacau made no mistake as he leaped high at the back post to power a header back across goal from an inch perfect Timo Gerbhart cross leaving the Barca custodian with no chance.

Stuttgart were content to allow the Catalan's to dominate possession in the center of the park but whenever they got within 35 yards of Jens Lehmann's goal the defensive effort from Die Roten was a model of organized teamwork and precise positional play.

Even the dribbling danger of Lionel Messi came unstuck against the resolute rearguard and when the Argentinian did get a sight on goal good enough to force a Lehmann howler from a 20 yard effort five minutes before the interval, the 'keepers left hand upright proved his savior.

Under Gross' tutelage, Stuttgart have lost just once in nine attempts and their new found defensive solidity showed it was capable of keeping the very best at bay with ease while their offensive intensity had Barca's back line rattled.

After the break Stuttgart continued to squeeze the space and their swarming defensive system smothered the Barca attack but the champions refused to relent, relying on their game plan with an unshakable faith, patiently maintaining possession and biding their time for the all important chance.

The home side's enterprise and endeavor was eventually eroded when Swedish striker Ibrahimovic struck exposed a telling lapse at the back slipping the ball beyond Lehmann at the second attempt after Gerard Pique climbed high above Serdar Tacsi to nod into his path. The fact that Ibra had a second bite at the cherry will be particularly galling for Gross as his side were certainly proving a worthy test for the Champions League title holders.

The whole complexion of the tie turned with the away goal as the Blaugrana swapped their instability with Stuttgart's confidence and although the hosts were still willing, Jens Lehmann survived another howler at the other end which typified the cautious German jitters.

As the second hand evolved the game ebbed and flowed with both sides enjoying periods of possession but the cagey, chess-like exchanges meant clear goal chances were at a premium.

Tempers frayed in stoppage time as Sami Khedira wrestled Messi to the floor but Barca emerge from the first leg with a quarter final spot well within their sights.


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