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PHOTO: MIGUEL RUIZ-FCB

The European champions resumed their title defence in style. For the first time under Guardiola, they won the away leg of a second round tie, 3-1 at German side Bayer Leverkusen. And it was thoroughly deserved win too, with the Catalans dominating from start to finish, and Alexis Sánchez playing the decisive role. The Chilean was on target twice, while Messi finished things off with Barça's third. Kadlec had managed to pull the Bundesliga side back level early in the second half, but an outstanding Valdés managed to prevent Beyer from adding to their tally.

The result puts FC Barcelona in a wonderful position and they can rightly feel optimistic about their chances of ensuring a place in the last eight on March 7 at the Camp Nou.

80% possession

It didn't take long to work out what kind of game it was going to be. Bayer sat back with as many as five defenders and all eleven players in their own half, and thus handed the initiative to their visitors. That's always a dangerous tactic against Barça, who played the ball around with ease as they patiently searched for gaps in the German defence. Indeed, at one point, their possession was as a high as an extraordinary 80%, and it seemed only a matter of time before the first goal would come.

Crucial goal

But Guardiola's players were uncharacteristically unimaginative up front – even with seven players in attack they struggled to find space, which was understandable with eleven tightly packed Leverkusen men to find their way through. It was going to take either a wonderful combination play or a flash of individual brilliance to break through the German wall. Or otherwise a Bayer error, which is precisely how the build-up to Alexis' goal began. Messi collected the ball in the centre of the park and sent a delightful through ball to the Chilean, who drove the ball low and hard past goalkeeper Leno. 1-0.

Kadlec equalises, Alexis replies

Straight after the break and in practically Bayer's first serious approach on Valdés' goals, Bayer Leverkusen scored. A high cross into the area from Corluka was headed home by Kadlec and the celebrations broke out in the Bayarena. But they didn't last long. Two minutes later Cesc spotted Alexis breaking away from his marker, and the Chilean once again got the better of Leno, this time with some splendid dribbling skill and an expertly converted finish. Two for the Chilean. Silence in Germany.

Valdés decisive

Now 2-1 down, Bayer Leverkusen had no option but to abandon their ultra-defensive approach and go for something a little more proactive. And the plan might have worked had it not been for Valdés, who managed to block no more than three clear-cut chances, one of which was turned onto the post. But despite these isolated moments when Bayer were threatening, Barça always looked more in control of affairs. Messi almost scored the goal of the competition, but his amazing chip over Leno rebounded back off the post, while Alexis almost completed his hat-trick with a header from a corner.

Messi settles it

The second half had been a considerably more gripping affair than the somewhat sleepy first 45 minutes, and it seemed highly unlikely that it was going to end 2-1. One sensed there was more to come, and indeed there was when yet another penetrating through ball from Barça, this time by Alves, led to Messi making it three for the visitors. It was the perfect end to an evening on which Barcelona were once again able to show the world just why they are the reigning European champions.

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