VfB Stuttgart gave holders FC Barcelona a real test but were denied a lead to take to the Camp Nou for the second leg of their UEFA Champions League first knockout round tie.
Stuttgart were rewarded for a sound tactical start midway through the first half when the in-form Cacau headed them in front against the team coach Christian Gross warned were "the best club side in the world". However, Zlatan Ibrahimović made the most of one of his few chances soon after the restart, getting the away goal which makes Stuttgart's trip to Spain on 17 March all the more daunting.
With Barcelona imposing their well-rehearsed possession game early on, Stuttgart responded in an understandably cautious manner, sitting deep in their own half and looking to hit the reigning champions on the counterattack. It almost paid dividends when Lionel Messi slipped in the Stuttgart box just five minutes in, allowing the home side to break quickly, only for Timo Gebhart to direct the game's first shot on target within easy reach of Victor Valdés.
Growing in confidence as the Blaugrana struggled to create in attack and with the bumper home crowd behind them, Stuttgart began to venture forward with left-back Cristian Molinaro enjoying plenty of crossing opportunities. However, it was from the opposing flank that the game's opening goal came on 25 minutes, Gebhart swinging a perfect cross to the far post, where Cacau arrived on cue to send a measured header into the far corner.
Oozing confidence after his four-goal display against 1. FC Köln on Saturday, the Germany striker continued to threaten as Stuttgart entered their best phase of the match. Twice the energetic forward broke into the box in the immediate aftermath of the goal only to be denied in the first instance by his own unselfishness and by the feet of Valdés shortly afterwards.
While Messi had Lehmann thanking the left-hand upright when his effort from distance squirmed under the 40-year-old custodian's grasp, it was Stuttgart who looked the more dangerous as the half-time whistle approached, Christian Träsch and Pavel Pogrebnyak both spurning decent opportunities to extend their lead.
Those missed chances were punished early in the second half when Ibrahimović equalised. The Swedish international's initial attempt after Gerard Piqué headed back a Sergio Busquets cross was blocked superbly by Lehmann, but the experienced goalkeeper was powerless to stop the towering striker from stroking in the rebound. While Messi sent another dangerous ball across the face of goal soon after, Stuttgart continued positively, almost restoring their lead when Sami Khedira fired wide after being teed up by Cacau.
The lively Molinaro persisted well into the closing stages on the left flank and was almost rewarded after showing good pace to get to the byline, though the Italian defender's cross was just too much of a stretch for Cacau in the centre. Therefore, while Stuttgart have a daunting task in three weeks' time, Gross's charges have every reason to be proud of their performance as they continue their excellent form under the Swiss coach.
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