Alexis Sánchez scored twice as holders FC Barcelona took a giant step towards a place in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals with victory at Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
Though they spent much of the opening period trying in vain to prise open their obdurate hosts, Josep Guardiola's men went in at half-time ahead courtesy of Alexis Sánchez's 41st-minute strike, his maiden goal in UEFA club competition. The Chilean international doubled his team's tally ten minutes after the restart, nipping in the bud a Leverkusen rally sparked by Michal Kadlec's 52nd-minute header. Lionel Messi's seventh of the competition late on left Barcelona in control going into the second leg on 7 March.
Leverkusen coach Robin Dutt had estimated his team would enjoy one-third of possession but, when the visitors kept the ball for over a minute from kick-off, that figure looked ambitious. Dutt's plans for his conservative lineup to stifle Barcelona's formidable attacking talents did initially prove astute, however.
Gonzalo Castro's over-enthusiastic pursuit of Messi gave Barça a promising free-kick that Daniel Alves wasted, and the only time the hosts were cut apart was when Manuel Friedrich inadvertently played in Sánchez − Daniel Schwaab's magnificent lunge to intercept the Chilean's cross denied Messi what surely would have been the opening goal.
The Leverkusen fans had unfurled a banner depicting their team as Vikings in a longboat just before kick-off, and the players certainly seemed intent on matching the Scandinavians' legendary combativeness as they tirelessly harried their opponents. However, whenever their passing fails to break down opponents, Barça remain patient, and they bided their time before Leverkusen's rigid discipline finally cracked.
The hosts were caught upfield when Stefan Reinartz's mis-kick presented Messi with the opportunity to loft a pass into space for Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas to burst on to. The latter left it to the former to calmly slot a shot between Bernd Leno's legs.
Clearly deflated at the interval, there was renewed belief about Leverkusen when they re-emerged, and their greater ambition was quickly rewarded when Kadlec rose above Alves to head Vedran Ćorluka's cross beyond Victor Valdés. Parity, though, was fleeting as Barça responded in trademark fashion. Fàbregas's sublime through ball was simply too good for the Leverkusen back four, and Sánchez effortlessly rounded Leno before finishing from a tight angle.
Leverkusen responded once more and after Valdés had halted a Renato Augusto drive, the goalkeeper was beaten by Gonzalo Castro's low shot only for the ricochet off the far post to go Barcelona's way. Messi, too, tested the woodwork after darting between two defenders and chipping Leno, and both sides had further chances to add to the scoreline, with substitute Stefan Kiessling heading straight at Valdés before Leno's sharp reflexes denied Sánchez a hat-trick.
As Leverkusen wearied, Barça enjoyed greater freedom, and Alves broke forward before finding Messi, who lunged to touch in and make himself the competition's outright leading scorer.
©UEFA.com 1998-2015. All rights reserved.