Sunday, March 8, 2009

Barcelona v Lyon: Champions League Last 16: La Blaugrana Turn The Corner Just in Time...

Two weeks ago, Thierry Henry scored an invaluable away goal to hand the advantage to Barcelona in their Champions League match at Stade Gerland.

Lyon provided a stern test for the favorites and even had the temerity to take the lead through a majestic Juninho Pernambuco free kick, eventually wayward finishing and Barcelona's undoubted quality combined to leave the tie on a knife-edge at 1-1.

Most pundits had expected Barcelona to dispose of Lyon comfortably, but Claude Puel's side are no pushovers, and on another night, the French champions would have pulled off a memorable victory.

Going into this game at Camp Nou, Barcelona are slight favorites, thanks to that Henry header. And they will be happy in the knowledge that they have beaten Lyon the previous two times they have travelled to the Catalan capital.

However, Barcelona have never beaten French opposition in the knockout phase of the Champions League so they will need to be wary, especially as Lyon contain one of Europe's hottest strikers in Karim Benzema.

But with the influential French youngster a major doubt for the Last-16 clash, Los Cules could be forgiven for thinking luck might be on their side.

This season Barcelona have been playing some of the most exciting football ever seen in Europe. They have played with wild abandon, Pep Guardiola the surprise choice to succeed Frank Rijkaard as manager seemed to have absorbed all the pressure that the team play under. With this newfound freedom, Barca excelled.

They took on all comers and swept them aside, becoming the fastest team to score 100 goals in a season. Guardiola's Barcelona won admirers in all corners of the world. And then on Valentine's Day, the wheels began to come off.

Heading into their match with Real Betis, Barca were 1/22 to win La Liga, 11 points ahead of their nearest rivals and playing an incredible brand of football. Henry had finally settled and was scoring, Messi was as amazing as ever and was scoring, and Samuel E'too was back scoring too.

But Betis pulled off the impossible, they came from two down to draw 2-2. A week later Barca lost to Espanyol, and their worst form of the season was biting right as the Champions League was starting back up.

Roll on four weeks without a win and Barca went into last weekend's crunch game with Atletic Bilbao knowing that defeat would pile on the pressure. Madrid had cut their lead to four points.

However, when the going gets tough, the tough gets going and Barca pulled off a much needed 2-0 win. But the manner of the victory would suggest that they have indeed turned a corner.

The Los Cules of before Christmas were back.

And just in time for the second leg of the tie against Lyon.

Compare the current runs of the two teams...

Going into matchday one, Lyon had won three in a row, Barca had just lost for the first time since December. And now with matchday two on the horizon Lyon have lost two in a row to Lille in Ligue 1 and the Cup for the first time since December too.

Their form is beginning to desert them right as Barca's is returning. Add the current loss in form to a potential injury to Benzema and it gets harder to see Lyon coming out of the Nou Camp with a win.

But they do possess the team to pull off an unlikely result. Juninho, Kallstrom, Ederson, Fred, Makoun, all very capable players. Where their problems lie is in front of goal.

Only Benzema has hit double figures this term, and the team struggle to score if he does not play. So far this season they have scored 35 goals between 11 players in Ligue 1.

Barcelona's poor run came at the right time for Guardiola. With the bad results he has been vindicated in telling his players that they have won nothing yet and that they cannot take anything for granted. That hard work comes before glory every time.

Thankfully they seem to have listened.

And the Los Cules of before Christmas are back...


Barcelona 2/5 Draw 10/3 Lyon 8/1

twitter / WillieGannon