BARCELONA // David Beckham went back to Old Trafford for the first time last week and Jose Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge last night with Inter Milan. Both have overshadowed Aleksandr Hleb, the five time Belarusian Footballer of the Year, who makes his own return to Barcelona tonight with VfB Stuttgart.
Hleb is on loan from the Catalans, who did not insist that he was not allowed to play should the pair meet. Although he is contracted to Barca until 2012, Hleb is unlikely to play another game for the Camp Nou club where he made just eight league appearances in a disappointing 2008/09 season after joining from Arsenal for a hefty ?15 million (Dh75.3m) fee. Just three of those games were starts - the final trio of the season, with the league in the bag and Barca resting players ahead of the Champions League final.
They helped Hleb pick up a league winners' medal, but it was a hollow achievement. As last season wore on, the versatile Minsk-born midfielder, 28, realised that he was not in Pep Guardiola's long-term plans. After initially describing his transfer to Barcelona as "a dream move", Hleb could not hide his frustration at watching Barca win everything - from the bench. He cut a forlorn, unhappy figure and was loaned to Stuttgart for this year, the club where he spent five seasons before joining Arsenal in 2005.
He is enjoying his football back in Germany, where he first built his international reputation with his skills, vision, speed and mazy runs after signing as a 19-year-old from Bate Borisov in 2000. He earned the nickname 'Zauberlehrling' - the sorcerer's apprentice - in an accomplished Stuttgart side which was enjoying Champions League football for the first time. Hleb's career trajectory would be an upwards one until his miserable experience in Catalonia, but he is still surprisingly generous.
"Barcelona are simply the best team in the word," Hleb said. "They play the nicest football and every player can decide a game on his own. "We don't just have to concentrate on Leo [Messi] - because of course he is the most dangerous player - but on every other player, be it Xavi, Iniesta, Thierry [Henry], Pedro or [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic. Even in defence they set a real standard. "This was the one opponent I didn't want, because I know Barcelona are so strong.
"Against any other team we could put up a fight and would have the same chances, but not against Barcelona. But there's still a small chance for us." Hleb impressed in the frenetic first leg, with Stuttgart the dominant side in the first-half, taking the lead. Barcelona finished strongly though and scored a crucial away goal in the 1-1 draw. That strike, from Ibrahimovic, now gives Barca the edge and makes the holders clear favourites to progress to the last eight, but mindful of what happened to Real Madrid against Lyon last week, Guardiola will be taking no chances.
Barca were pushed hard in the first leg and know that Stuttgart are much improved since coach Christian Gross took over in December, following a poor start to the Bundesliga season. They have gradually risen to ninth, though Friday's 2-1 defeat at second placed Schalke 04 left them off the pace for the European places. Barca's biggest enemy is expectation and they have also had to contend with whispers that they are not the side they were a year ago.
"If you don't play as brilliantly every week, then it creates some doubts," said Daniel Alves, the Catalans' Brazilian defender. "But there were doubts when we drew away with Lyon at the same stage last season. Then we won comfortably at home. "People thought we were going to walk over teams in Europe this season and that's not the case, it never has been. If you are not fully prepared then you will be kicked out, as has happened with Real Madrid last week. It's very, very difficult to win the Champions League even if you prepare well, you still need luck. The other teams prepare very well and you are playing against the best in Europe."
Stuttgart are not quite in that category and travel in hope rather than expectation. "We just need to concentrate on our game; we need to be compact and aggressive," said Hleb. "We will get chances, I know that, but we've got to be really tight at the back." With Messi in world beating form following his sublime second half hat-trick against Valencia on Sunday, that is something of an understatement.