Barcelona, First Leg, Preview

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FC Barcelona (ESP) vs Liverpool
Champions League Last 16, Season 2006-07
First Leg, Wednesday 21st February
Nou Camp Stadium

The last two winners of the Champions League meet in the final 16 of this year’s competition. 2005 winners Liverpool travel to Catalonia where 2006 winners and Spanish La Liga winners Barcelona host Rafa Benitez’s side.

Both teams though go into the game with off the field drama making the headlines in the last week. The civil war at Barcelona has intensified recently with claims of a ‘cold’ dressing room and a rift between star players Ronaldinho and Samuel E’to. E’to is likely to be left out by Barca boss Frank Rijkaard which will mean Javier Saviola will lead the Spaniards attack.

Liverpool meanwhile go into the game on the back of their trip to the Algarve last week where they enjoyed a break from the English February climate in their sun-soaked training camp. However some media reports over the weekend claiming of a rift between striker Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise somewhat overshadowed their preparations and lead to the club releasing a statement to the contrary on Sunday.

The Reds last two visits to the Nou Camp have yielded no goals – for either side. An excellent rearguard action back in the treble cup winning season under Gerard Houllier in the UEFA Cup semi final set Houllier’s side up for the 1-0 win at Anfield in the return leg. And a year later in March 2002 another 0-0 draw ensured Houllier’s side progressed from the second group stage in the old format of the Champions League. The Catalan giants though did inflict a highly impressive 3-1 win and performance in the home leg in that group, scoring one of the best team goals seen at Anfield in years.

Barça defeated Arsenal in last year’s dramatic final in Paris. Jens Lehmann’s early dismissal served to inspire the Gunners though with Sol Campbell putting Wenger’s side ahead, only for a late comeback and goals from Eto’o and Belletti to give Rijkaard’s side the win.

Benitez’s former side Valencia hosted Barca at the weekend and earnt a 2-1 win courtesy of goals from Angulo and Silva. Ronaldinho added a late consolation but the result means Sevilla are now level on points with Barca, with both Valencia and Real Madrid four points behind. The Spanish title race is proving a much closer one than in England, with just ten points seperating the top seven, compared to 25 in the Premiership.

With Momo Sissoko having returned from a lengthy lay-off in the defeat at Newcastle last time out, Rafa Benitez could opt to field the Malian international alongside Xabi Alonso – who Sissoko replaced due to the Spaniard’s suspension. That could mean captain Stevie Gerrard moving to the right of midfield, or see Benitez opting for a five man midfield and Gerrard given a license to support a lone forward.

A draw of any type would be great for Liverpool, a score-draw would be a great result, and as-ever with these first leg away matches, even a defeat like 2-1 would stand the Reds in good steed for the home leg two weeks later at Anfield.

With Barca having played on Sunday evening and Liverpool having had ten days since their last outing the teams have had contrasting build-ups, but similarly both last 2-1 in their last match and have had off-field problems in the headlines.

It’s sure to be an intriguing encounter…

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