Christian Gross, the VfB Stuttgart coach, had warned his players that they were about to meet "the best club side in the world." He urged them to be courageous and passionate, saying that he expected every player to be at their best. Only then, he said, could they contemplate a positive result against Barcelona.
In the Champions League last 16 first leg in Germany, his in-form players heeded those words and began brightly. Barca's strategy, while based on possession, was to get the ball to Lionel Messi, whose would-be marker Cristian Molinaro seemed befuddled and unsure how far to follow the Argentine. However, it was the German side who applied most of the early pressure. They took a deserved lead after 25 minutes when their Brazilian-born German international Cacau sent a powerful header past Victor Valdes. Oozing confidence, Cacau had scored four times in Stuttgart's 5-1 demolition of Koln at the weekend.
Gerard Pique prevented Cacau adding a second on 30 minutes after first being shouldered to the ground by the striker, before quickly closing down and dispossessing him. Barca were overwhelmed, Stuttgart superb in their pressing. Their front two of Cacau and Pavel Pogrebnyak were strong, clever and direct with the ball as they put the Catalans on the ropes. And yet despite Alexsandr Hleb, the Belarus midfielder on loan from Barca, stealing the ball off Carles Puyol and setting up another chance to make it two, Stuttgart were unable to finish Barca off and had to be content with a one-goal lead at the end of an engrossing first half.
The home fans had seen an exhilarating display of skill and confidence from their team. They had seen a team comprised of low cost signings and loan players dominate the European and world champions, but those who suspected that their inability to add more than a goal would cost them were correct in their instinct. Barca grew into the game after the break and record signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who only played after passing a late fitness test, scored the vital away goal after 52 minutes.
Barca dominated thereon, Stuttgart struggled to get the ball and seemed spent from their first-half endeavours. The Catalans, how- ever, showed little intent in adding a second and appeared to think they had contained Stuttgart's great effort knowing that they will go for the kill in the return leg at Camp Nou on March 17. Favourites for the competition, Barca are probably right, but Stuttgart deserve praise and should be proud for denying the best team in the world the time and space on the ball from on which they thrive.
"1-1 against Barcelona is a success," said Gross after the game. "Few teams in the world manage a draw against Barca, but we had a compact defence which limited their chances on goal. "The only thing that annoys me is that we didn't score a second when we dominated the game, but I am satisfied and we will strive for a repeat performance in Camp Nou." email@example.com