In terms of the status of both clubs and the players on their respective books, it was without doubt the largest mismatch of the Champions League last-16 ties. Barcelona, full to the brim with veritable world-beaters and outstanding technical ability, travelled to the Mercedes-Benz Arena to meet Stuttgart. The Germans currently sit a lowly ninth in the Bundesliga and many expected their inexperienced side to dismantle in the face of Spanish superiority. Anything but a defeat would be thought of as a miraculous success for the “Schwaben”.
A 1-1 draw had Stuttgart boss Christian Gross and his team buzzing with pride and elation at the end of the two team’s first-leg encounter. Stuttgart gained the luck they required as Barcelona predictably had more of the ball, creating the clearer cut chances and had it not been for a string of outstanding stops by Stuttgart gloveman Jens Lehmann, the Schwaben may have been on the receiving end of a mauling. The former Arsenal shot stopper was on top form last night as his experienced Champions League head provided stability in the otherwise raw Stuttgart side.
Before the game former Tottenham manager Gross stated: “We have to play with high intensity, and above all, when we have the ball we cannot allow ourselves to make mistakes.” Alexander Hleb, Stuttgart’s on-loan playmaker from Barcelona also revealed his team’s recipe for success. “Perhaps a surprise is possible if we play without fear, we talk to each other a lot and we are compact.” These tactics and attitudes were clearly identifiable throughout the game as Barcelona were not given time to play.
Stuttgart defended high up the field, chased and harried the European champions tirelessly and, as Hleb had pointed out, remained compact. But they were not just content with staying solid and compact when defending, they also seemed to employ the attitude that the best form of defence is attack. Whilst Barcelona were somewhat shabby and careless with the ball in the first half, Stuttgart were adventurous and efficient when streaming forward, causing the Barca rearguard an unexpected headache. Italian left-back Cristian Molinaro regularly ventured down the left flank and linked up with Hleb impressively to create numerous openings for Stuttgart’s strike duo Cacau and Pavel Pogrebnyak. It was from the right-hand side, however, from which the opening goal was produced – Timo Gebhart floating a delightful cross onto the head of Cacau, who headed powerfully past Valdes at the back post after Puyol misjudged the aerial ball. Stuttgart’s dominance continued to surprise and overwhelm Pep Guardiola’s men for the remainder of the first half, and the Barca Coach must have been bristling with fury at his team’s lack of invention and urgency at the break.
The equaliser came through a move more reminiscent of Bolton than Barcelona as an aerial punt forward was not dealt with by Delpierre and Zlatan Ibrahimovic poked past Lehmann after his initial attempt was smartly saved by the German. But that was the only sniff of goal the reigning champions got and Stuttgart remained positively magnificent in their work rate, competently nullifying their opponents by sticking to their game plan. Yet with the return leg in the Nou Camp and the away goal in the bag, it is still hard to see past a Barcelona progression to the next stage.