FC Barcelona have the upper hand in the return leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final against FC Schalke 04 at the Camp Nou. The Catalan side go into the game with a 1-0 advantage following their 1 April away win and history is most certainly on their side: To put matters into context, Barcelona have only lost two of the previous 34 European ties where they have returned to Spain with a first-leg lead....
The 2006 trophy winners have lost just three times in their last 30 fixtures in all competitions, yet they go in to tonight's fixture under intense scrutiny. The home fans turned on their side following Barcelona's goalless home draw with Getafe CF in the Primera Liga on Sunday, with the fans showing their discontent at the team's stuttering league form and their failure to challenge Real Madrid at the top of the table.
The Champions League represents Barcelona's most realistic chance of a trophy this season and the home side are favourites thanks to a 12th-minute Bojan Krkić goal that earned Frank Rijkaard's side a slender victory in Gelsenkirchen. However, the Barcelona captain Carles Puyol, is aware that the notoriously fickle Camp Nou crowd and the tense atmosphere that engulfs the club, may play in to the visitors hands.
Puyol said last night: "We would clearly prefer the atmosphere to be more positive going into such an important match. But I've always said that the atmosphere that our supporters generate at the Camp Nou is in our hands. We are the ones who can inspire them."
The defender is aware that tonight, especially, the fans will want to see Barcelona win with a swagger and will not be happy to see their side scrape through. The Catalan Puyol fully appreciates the fans demands, and said: "We respect our fans and their behaviour when they're not happy with us. This is a great opportunity to revive their confidence in, and enjoyment of, our football."
Unfortunately for Puyol and his colleagues, tonights game may not be quite as pleasing on the eye as they would like: not if Schalke have their way.
The German side spent the first 45 minutes of the first leg learning how to trouble their opponents and ten spent the second half putting the theory in to practice. That meant a second 45 minutes of aerial bombardment for Puyol and Milito -something which they are not exactly the most adept at dealing with. The Barcelona defence can expect 90 minutes of the same this evening. The Germans also discovered that rather than playing Barcelona at their own game, a more physical approach is more likely to bear fruit.
Under fire Frank Rijkaard is fully aware of the German threat. He told last nights press conference that: "Schalke are playing effectively in the German championship right now and they are very, very strong physically. So this is a genuine test for us. Schalke will attempt to inflict on us more of the direct football which we saw in the second half of the match in Gelsenkirchen, and we are going to need our full concentration to defend against it."
Slightly troubling is Rijkaard's admission that: "No, we won't do anything out of the ordinary – we will just concentrate on the key points, the mental preparation and the idea that we have to entertain our fans."
This pressure to entertain the fans, rather than just get a result, could prove to be Barcelona's Achilles heel - an unnecessary burden to perform when what is really needed is the result.
Barcelona remain one of two sides still unbeaten in this UEFA Champions League campaign, together with Manchester United FC. They reached the knockout rounds by topping Group E with four wins and two draws and then overcame Celtic FC in the last 16, winning 3-2 in Glasgow and 1-0 at home.
This is going to be a very tough game for Barcelona and if they fail to establish an early lead it is going to be very interesting to see just how patient the home fans are prepared to be. Schalke will certainly make life difficult, and listening to the German coach last night - he knows exactly what needs to be done.
Ahead of his side's first ever visit to the Camp Nou, Mirko Slomka said:" People ask me whether we need a miracle to eliminate Barça but I am sure that's the wrong word.
We know that we have to pressurise them much more than we did last week and I have told my players that they have to give their absolute limit at all times. But if individually and collectively we are at our best then I have no doubt that we have a chance of winning and advancing."
Schalke reached the last eight by defeating FC Porto on penalties in the first knockout round. After winning 1-0 at home, Mirko Slomka's side went down 1-0 in Portugal before prevailing 4-1 in a penalty shoot-out. They had previously finished second in Group B behind Chelsea FC, with a record of W2 D2 L2 – the lowest points tally (eight) of the 16 teams that advanced.
The winners of tonight's tie will go on to face either Roma or Manchester United in the semi finals.
Barcelona must do without long-term absentees Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Deco although Rafael Márquez continues to gain match practice since returning from injury last week and could feature this evening.
Schalke have key players such as defenders Mladen Krstajić, Heiko Westermann and Christian Pander carrying a variety of minor knocks.
The First Leg Teams were:
Schalke: Manuel Neuer, Rafinha, Marcelo Bordon, Mladen Krstajić, Heiko Westermann, Gerald Asamoah (Søren Larsen, 73), Fabian Ernst, Levan Kobiashvili, Christian Pander, Kevin Kuranyi (Vicente Sánchez, 60), Halil Altıntop (Peter Løvenkrands, 89).
Barcelona: Victor Valdés, Gianluca Zambrotta, Carles Puyol. Gabriel Milito, Eric Abidal, Xavi Hernández, Yaya Touré (Rafael Márquez, 73), Andrés Iniesta, Bojan Krkić (Sylvinho, 86), Samuel Eto'o (Giovani 82), Thierry Henry.