Ibrahimovic stars, Barcelona takes edge in Champions League
The Champions League Round of 16 kicked off Tuesday with two fascinating ties which ended with two wins for the away sides: Barcelona beating Manchester City 2-0 while Paris Saint-Germain thumped Bayer Leverkusen 4-0. Here is what we learned from the games:
Player of the Day: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, PSG
The Champions League has a new top scorer. Cristiano Ronaldo may have scored a Matchday 1 hat trick, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic moved to 10 goals in six matches in this season's competition with two more as his Paris Saint-Germain side beat Bayer Leverkusen in Germany.
This is usually the stage of the competition where Ibrahimovic goes quiet. OK, so he scored 12 months ago against Valencia but then needlessly got himself sent off in the 92nd minute, so ruling himself out of the second leg. He has only reached one semifinal in his career, back in that memorable he season he shared with Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. Before this tie, he had scored only five goals in 30 knockout ties in the competition.
The difference at PSG is that Ibrahimovic is the main man, and he knows it. He thrives on it, too. It was the Swede¹s pass from the right flank that set up Marco Verratti to play in Blaise Matuidi for a 3rd-minute opening goal. Ibrahimovic then doubled the lead from the penalty spot, capitalizing on Emir Spahic¹s clumsy fall on Ezequiel Lavezzi (still a generous penalty).
There could be no doubting the quality of PSG¹s third goal, Matuidi laying the ball back to Ibrahimovic who fired home a curler into the top corner with his weaker left foot.
Leverkusen boss Sami Hyypia hauled off captain Simon Rolfes at halftime but it did not get much better for the host, when Spahic was shown a second yellow card on the hour. There was some respite when PSG had a fourth goal, a Matuidi effort that deflected off Philipp Wollschied, disallowed for offside (but Lavezzi was not interfering). But on his Champions League debut, PSG substitute Yohan Cabaye made it 4-0 with a late effort.
The last, and in fact only, time Ibrahimovic was this decisive in a knockout tie it was in 2012, when he scored one and set up in AC Milan¹s 4-0 win over Arsenal.
"I have had many special moments in the Champions League even though I have not yet won the competition," he told UEFA.com earlier this season. "I savor these moments but of course I want more."
Leverkusen has also been here before: two years ago, it lost at this stage 7-1 at Barcelona, with Messi scoring five. That's something for Ibrahimovic to aim for in three weeks.
Moment of the Day: Andres Iniesta's pass
Andres Iniesta has only started 16 league games this season but, like before the 2010 World Cup, has found his fitness and form just at the right time. Coach Tata Martino admitted there would be less "turnover" of resting his players at this crucial part of the season and the way Iniesta played at the Etihad, you can see why.
It was his pass after 53 minutes that changed the nature of this tie: just after City appealed for a foul on Jesus Navas, Iniesta threaded a pass from inside the City half for Lionel Messi to run through on goal.
Vincent Kompany had dropped back, Martin Demichelis, until that moment looking assured alongside him, had pushed up and was left chasing his compatriot as he bore down on goal. Demichelis clipped Messi's ankle, outside the area, but Messi's momentum carried him into the area and the result was inevitable: penalty and red card - unfortunate for Demichelis.
For a brief moment, the memory of Messi's penalty miss against Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League semifinal came to mind: on that occasion, Petr Cech stood his ground for as long as possible, and Messi fired against the crossbar. This time, it was a different story. Joe Hart, the only Englishman who started the game, made it very easy for Messi by diving to his left far too early, allowing the striker to simply pass the ball into the middle of the goal.
How second legs shape up
A last-minute goal by Dani Alves after a smart 1-2 with Neymar leaves things looking grim for Manchester City after what was, let's not forget, its first Champions League knockout tie. The biggest shame was not so much the Demichelis red card - which didn't ruin the game as many would have expected - but that City, missing Sergio Aguero and with Fernandinho and Samir Nasri both returning from injury, were not at full-strength.
It might not have changed the result but it might have given us more indication as to how close City is to succeeding at this level. Until that Alves goal, there had been shoots of optimism for City coach Manuel Pellegrini, who had clearly learned from the home humbling by Bayern Munich.
Even when reduced to 10 men, City pushed for an equalizer, with David Silva's volley well stopped by Victor Valdes, and Edin Dezko's aerial prowess a menace. Yet it could have been even worse: with 10 minutes to play, Xavi's disguised pass took out the whole defense, Cesc Fabregas squared for Gerard Pique to tap home, but Fabregas was wrongly called for offside.
The two-goal lead makes it a near impossible task for City now - even if Aguero is fit again.
As for Paris Saint-Germain, its tie is as good as over, but that won't stop the French champion looking to increase its goal tally. PSG wants to make the final this year and though it was helped by the draw, having Ibrahimovic in this kind of form means nothing can be ruled out.
Major takeaway of the day
Barcelona's demise has been exaggerated.
We have heard a lot about Barcelona's problems in the build-up to this game: how Messi had lost his passion for the game and was not himself this season; how Iniesta and Xavi have been troubled by injuries all season and how Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique have looked vulnerable in defense.
That all seems premature now, and Martino, who has been under pressure at times this season, deserves credit for his selection - in picking Fabregas and Alexis, leaving Neymar on the bench, and even keeping Jordi Alba in a more defensive fullback role to avoid the threat of getting caught out by the pace of Jesus Navas.
Bayern Munich may be the new top dog of the European game, but it will still take a special side to knock out the old darlings.