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With top spot in Group E already guaranteed, Barça were only playing for honour on Wednesday night. And they managed to achieve just that by holding on for a 1-1 draw against a Bayer side that threw everything they could at the visitors in search of a winner that would mean they would join the Catalans in the last sixteen.
Luis Enrique opted to rest several of his heavyweights, but did field Messi in attack alongside Munir and Sandro, and Ivan Rakitic started in midfield in the company of Samper and Champions League debutant Kaptoum of Barça B.
Goals at either end
It was a very different matter for the home side. Bayer needed to win this game while hoping that BATE could do them a favour in Rome, so it was no surprise to see the Germans take the initiative in the early exchanges, coming closest after 12 minutes when Ter Stegen did well to deny Çalhanoglu. But the optimism in the BayArena was silenced after 20 minutes when Leo Messi read a run to perfection to beat the offside trap, latch onto the end of a Rakitic through ball and then coolly round Bayer keeper Leno to stroke home the first of the night.
The German despondence only lasted three minutes. A quick move down Bayer’s left wing ended with a low delivery to a waiting Chicharito in the Barça area. All the Mexican had to do was turn and slam the ball with his left foot past a helpless Ter Stegen to score his fifth goal of the tournament and gets things back square again.
Heroics from Ter Stegen
That was how things remained until half-time, and as the second half progressed the urgency was understandably all coming from the Germans. Çalhanoglu was especially active in attack, squandering one great chance and seeing Ter Steger save another. There was further brilliance from the Barça keeper when Ballarabi looked certain to score – and so the game continued, with most of the play inside Barça’s half but Bayer unable to find the goal that they so desperately needed.
Meanwhile, Luis Enrique took off Jordi Alba to send on Juan Cámara to make his first team debut, seventeen months after he joined Barça B from Villarreal.
As the minutes ticked by, the tension in the BayArena reached boiling point – the game in Rome was heading for a 0-0 draw, so Bayer needed just one goal to qualify. But to do that they needed to get past a Barcelona defence that was getting everything right. Kiesling sent one chance sailing over the bar, then set up Chicharito, who could only gasp in frustration as Ter Stegen pulled off his umpteenth save of the night.
Bayer ended up outshooting Barça by 26 to 6, but as Tah shot wide deep into injury time, they knew they were heading for the Europa League, while Barça can now await the second round draw on December 14 after finishing top of the group with an unbeaten record.
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