A first UEFA Champions League goal for Bojan Krkić gave FC Barcelona a significant advantage in their quarter-final against FC Schalke 04 as the Catalan side withstood fierce second-half pressure to win in Gelsenkirchen.
Frank Rijkaard's men may be struggling for form in the Primera División but having continued their impressive European run, they will be confident of booking a semi-final place in next Wednesday's second leg after expertly nullifying their German opponents. Schalke's hopes suffered an early setback when Bojan struck the vital away goal after just 12 minutes, and things might have got worse for Mirko Slomka's team who were outplayed for long spells of the first half. Despite improving markedly after the break, the Bundesliga club never found the key to unlock the visitors' stubborn rearguard.
Appearing in the UEFA Champions League's last eight for the first time, the hosts seemed to be suffering stage fright in the opening exchanges as Barcelona seized the initiative. The Spanish outfit created their first opportunity on eight minutes when Xavi Hernández slipped Andrés Iniesta clear through the middle, only for Manuel Neuer to race off his line to smother. Yet Neuer, outstanding against FC Porto in the previous round, was picking the ball out of his net four minutes later. Iniesta's slide-rule pass found Thierry Henry in space on the left and after the Schalke goalkeeper failed to hold his first-time shot, Henry flicked the ball across for the 17-year-old Bojan to tap in his first European goal.
With Kevin Kuranyi isolated in attack and his closest ally Halil Altıntop being well marshalled by an authoritative Yaya Touré, Schalke struggled to make inroads. A tame 17th-minute attempt from Kuranyi – easily saved by Víctor Valdés – sparked a slight improvement, and Marcelo Bordon twice came close to connecting with Fabian Ernst set-pieces. But Barcelona's passing remained fluid, and with Henry, Bojan and Samuel Eto'o seamlessly interchanging positions, the Blaugrana threatened at regular intervals. They nearly added a second on the half-hour after Eto'o escaped the attentions of Heiko Westermann on the right and crossed for Bojan, who looked poised to score again before Bordon's outstretched leg diverted the ball fractionally wide.
Getting a grip
If Schalke's first-half display had been strangely muted, they came out firing after the restart, enjoying their first period of sustained pressure. Altıntop's dangerous strike was deflected wide by Gabriel Milito before, moments later, Christian Pander's fizzing low effort was spilled without consequence by Valdés. Westermann was next to try his luck and, though the left-back blasted high over the bar, the more positive approach was greeted by a roar of approval from the Arena AufSchalke fans.
The introduction of Vicente Sánchez also gave Schalke more cutting edge and the Barça defence was suddenly stretched. Gerald Asamoah deflected Ernst's shot narrowly wide in the 70th minute before Altıntop squandered his team's best chance of the night, firing across Valdés but centimetres past the post having been played through by Bordon. Substitute Søren Larsen and Westermann nodded over, then Bordon's powerful header was touched over by Valdés as Schalke finished strongly, yet Barcelona clung on tenaciously to their advantage.