x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Champions League: Rudi Voeller realistic about Barcelona task

Both Bayer Leverkusen and the Catalans are having domestic troubles going into their meeting in their last 16 first-leg match, while Lyon coach Remi Garde warns players not to underestimate APOEL Nicosia.

Bayer Leverkusen players take part in training yesterday ahead of tonight’s match.
Bayer Leverkusen players take part in training yesterday ahead of tonight’s match.

With hopes of a fourth consecutive Spanish league title fading, Barcelona are turning their full attention to defending their European crown - which is bad news for Bayer Leverkusen.

Both sides are having domestic troubles going into their meeting in tonight's Champions League last 16 first-leg match, but it is arguably Barcelona who have more to prove.

Saturday's 3-2 loss at Osasuna, coupled with Real Madrid's 4-2 win over Levante on Sunday, left the Spanish champions 10 points behind their rivals.

Leverkusen have problems of their own, having claimed only one win in their last seven games to lie sixth in the Bundesliga, while the club is at odds with Michael Ballack. The former Germany captain has not played for Leverkusen since Wolfgang Holzhaeuser, the managing director, described his transfer back to the club as a "failure".

Leverkusen failed to win any of the three games in which Ballack remained an unused substitute, but any thoughts that Robin Dutt, the Leverkusen coach, may have had of giving the 35 year old a final hurrah on the big stage were dashed on Sunday, when Ballack tore a calf muscle in training.

Ballack's injury is just the latest to hit Dutt's side. The winger Sidney Sam and the Swiss striker Eren Derdiyok were both ruled out with foot injuries, the latter after stepping on broken glass in his bathroom last week.

Leverkusen missed their attacking presence in the 1-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund on Saturday.

"On Tuesday, it could be a tick more difficult," Dutt said.

"We're not dreamers but realists," Rudi Voeller, Leverkusen's sporting director, said.

"We want to make sure of the Europa League place and secure international football that way."

Carles Puyol, the Barcelona captain, warned on Sunday: "We'll fight to the end in all three competitions, whoever thinks the opposite is wrong."

He added: "We have to give everything every game, and we'll do this until the end of the season."

Guardiola spared key midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi from Osasuna's frozen pitch with tonight's game in mind.

"We've been looking forward to this game for weeks, for the fans and for our young players to play against the world's best team," Voeller said.

"Of course it's a dream. You look at them sometimes and say, 'Ah, how lovely they play'. For the players it's great to see at first hand how they do it and why they are so good."

Lyon v APOEL Nicosia

Lyon’s frail defence may need to take a leaf out of APOEL Nicosia’s book when the two sides meet in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Lyon have not kept a clean sheet in their last five matches, losing 2-1 at home to lowly Caen in the French league on Saturday.

By contrast, APOEL’s strength at the back helped them become the first Cypriot team to reach the knockout phase after finishing ahead of Zenit St Petersburg, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk in the group stage.

“Everyone expects us to go through, but let’s not put the cart before the horse,” Remi Garde, the Lyon coach, said. “It’s a team which is tough to outmanoeuvre and defends well.”

But experience is on Lyon’s side as they have reached this stage for the ninth successive season.

Lyon will be without the Croatia defender Dejan Lovren, who is recovering from an Achilles injury.

The teenager Samuel Umtiti, 18, and the Brazilian veteran Cris, 34, have deputised at centre-back, but their performances have not really helped a Lyon defence which is the 12th most porous in the French league.

Hamdan Al Kamali, the UAE defender recently signed from Al Wahda, is not part of Lyon’s Champions League squad.

On top of a difficult team selection, Lyon have a congested schedule to deal with as they are still in contention in four competitions – the Champions League, the French league, the French Cup and the League Cup.

APOEL hope to capitalise on Lyon’s problems at the back to prove their spot in the last 16 is no fluke. “It’s a great opportunity for us to continue to show the whole world what we can do,” Ailton Almeida, the striker, said.

Ivan Jovanovic, the coach, added: “Scoring is one of our problems, but that depends on how the team plays.”

* Associated Press