In-form Messi awaits Stuttgart
Holders Barcelona hope Argentine sensation Lionel Messi can continue his rich vein of goalscoring form on Wednesday against Stuttgart in the second leg of the last 16 UEFA Champions League tie at Camp Nou.
Messi bagged a terrific hat-trick of solo goals in the 3-0 win over Valencia on Sunday to take his season's tally to 22 league goals and now Stuttgart must somehow find a way to nullify the Ballon D'Or winner. "He (Messi) is the best in the world. What he contributes with his talent makes him stand out," said goalkeeper Victor Valdes. "He could become the best player in history."
Barcelona begin as strong favourites to reach the quarter-finals after the 1-1 first leg draw in Germany but the treble winners need only look at rivals Real Madrid who were eliminated in front of their own fans by the less prestigious Lyon at the last 16 stage. "We have to be very careful," said Mexican defender Rafa Marquez. "Stuttgart are strong and will be the same as they were in Germany. We have to remember that what happened to (Real) Madrid could happen to us. We have to always respect the opposition and continue to work with humility."
Stuttgart are ninth in the German top-flight, 21 points behind leaders Bayern Munich, so they won't be playing in this competition next season unless they can shock everyone by winning the trophy. The Germans, beaten 2-1 by Schalke at the weekend, have never gone past the last 16 stage in the Champions League and have their work cut out to break that sequence although they are unbeaten on their travels in Europe this season.
Swiss coach Christian Gross took over at Stuttgart from Markus Babbel in December and has lifted spirits at the club while Belarus winger Alexander Hleb is one player with a point to prove on his return to Camp Nou. Hleb cost Barcelona €15 million from Arsenal in the summer of 2008 and was part of the team that won the league, Kings Cup and Champions League treble although he played a bit part often coming off the substitutes bench.
Barcelona loaned the 28-year-old Hleb to old club Stuttgart in the summer and the player knows all about the quality of his former team-mates. "This was the one opponent I didn't want, because I know Barcelona are so strong," said Hleb. "Against any other team we could put up a fight and would have the same chances, but not against Barcelona.
"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, (Andres) Iniesta, Thierry (Henry), Pedro (Rodriguez) or (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic. Even in defence they set a real standard."
Barcelona captain Carles Puyol may return from the injury that ruled him out of the Valencia win otherwise Argentine Gaby Milito or Marquez will deputise at centre-back. French international captain Thierry Henry came off the substitutes bench to great effect against Valencia to throw his hat in the ring for a starting spot against Stuttgart.
"In the locker room we know that we are all important," said Messi. "Henry has really helped with his work, his desire, his pressure. With him on the field the game (against Valencia) changed."
Henry would come up against two old Arsenal team-mates in Hleb and Jens Lehmann with all three in the Arsenal team that lost 2-1 against Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final in Paris.