By JOHN BOSCHINI
Barcelona's march to a potential third UEFA Champions League title in four years is in full effect after a 3-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday.
The Catalan giants have all but conceded the La Liga crown to Real Madrid but are in good position in the Champions League after the first leg of the Round of 16. Alexis Sanchez was the hero for the visitors, twice breaking deadlocks and giving Barcelona the lead. Lionel Messi set up Sanchez for his first and capped the victory with a sliding volley off a Dani Alves cross to put the German hosts in a major hole.
The opening 40 minutes in Leverkusen were far from thrilling. Barcelona, playing without Xavi (calf injury) had an astounding 80 percent of possession throughout the first half but were unable to create many chances until right before the break.
The breakthrough finally came just before halftime when Messi found an on-rushing Sanchez with a perfectly weighted chip. The Chilean striker executed with a low finish for his 10th goal of the season and first in the Champions League.
The second half produced far more in the way of offense. Leverkusen exposed Barcelona's back line, which was missing Gerard Pique, not long after the restart and were level through Michal Kadlec. Vedran Corluka's cross drifted to the far post, and the Czech international out-leaped Sanchez with a powerful header for the equalizer.
The lead was short-lived, though, as three minutes later Sanchez was again found with a beautiful through ball, this time from Cesc Fabregas. The striker took a touch around goalkeeper Bernd Leno and slotted it into the empty net for the eventual game-winner.
Both teams had chances in the final half-hour. Leverkusen came within inches of equalizing, but Gonzalo Castro's shot ricocheted off the post. Messi almost put the tie to bed but his nifty chip could only find the post. Finally, the FIFA Ballon d'Or winner did earn Barcelona a two-goal cushion and a third away goal by finishing off a classic passing combination in the 87th minute, first finding Alves down the right side and then completing his run into the area to receive the return pass.
LYON 1, APOEL NICOSIA 0
Lyon were utterly dominant in their home win over Cyprus champions Apoel Nicosia, but the lack of a decisive victory leaves the tie very much in doubt. Apoel's home form is the main reason for their progression as they garnered six points from a possible nine in the group stage.
Lyon dominated the first half of their game with a majority of possession and a monopoly on chances. The home side shot 13 times with three on target. Apoel, on the other hand, didn't manage a single attempt of any sort. It's a theme that would continue in the second half.
Lyon's goal came 12 minutes after the halftime break, when Alexandre Lacazette's right-footed shot found the back of the net. Lyon poured forward in search of a second goal, but Apoel's frantic defending was effective enough to fend off the hosts. In all, the French side outshot its opposition 18-1.
Like Barcelona and Leverkusen, Lyon and Apoel will play their respective return leg on March 7.
What did you think of today's games? Impressed with Barcelona's victory? Does Leverkusen have a chance at Camp Nou? Do you see Apoel coming back in the return leg?
Share your thoughts below.