With Messi on fire, Barca are firm favourites to dump Stuttgart out the Champions League

Barcelona v Stuttgart, Champions League last 16 second leg, March 17, 2010

Barcelona 1.25; Draw 5.50; Stuttgart 12.00

Stuttgart face the daunting prospect of travelling to the Camp Nou looking to somehow engineer a result to dump the champions out of the Champions League. The good news for the German Bundesliga side is that Barcelona are not in great form collectively, but the bad news is that Lionel Messi (4.00 to score first, 1.62 anytime) is on fire and could single-handedly secure Barcelona’s place in the quarter-finals.

Bearing in mind the trophies won and the football Pep Guardiola’s side played in 2009, it is fair to say Barcelona have struggled in recent months. The pressure of a relentless Real Madrid side and injuries have seen them play well but not up to the mighty standards of last season.

Sevilla dumped Barcelona out the Copa del Rey at the start of 2010, and the 2-1 defeat at Atletico Madrid in February seemed to signal a sea change in La Liga and offered Real Madrid reason to believe. The away draw at Stuttgart in the first leg of this tie and the tie at Almeria at the beginning of March have all proved that Barcelona are human and will have to lift their game to retain their league and European trophies. (4.02 on Draw/Barcelona.)

Lionel Messi though is a law unto himself and is laying down the challenge to the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo for title of best player in the world. Barcelona’s last five goals have all been scored by “The Flea” who was simply devastating with a brilliant hat-trick against Valencia on Sunday.

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Another impressive performer against Los Che was half-time substitute Thierry Henry (2.00 to score) who provided two assists and the French national team captain may well have played himself back into first team reckoning. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (4.00 to score first, 1.62 anytime) should also be recalled after he was suspended for the match against Valencia, and Pep Guardiola has the luxury of no injuries or suspensions as Eric Abidal and Seydou Keita have returned to fitness. (Barca are 1.58 to keep a clean sheet.)

Stuttgart will take heart from their first leg performance in Germany where they dominated the best team in the world during the first half and were unlucky not to win the match. Christian Gross has turned their fortunes around since he was appointed in December.

A defeat on Friday night to Schalke was no disgrace despite a poor performance in the first half, with Felix Magath’s side one of the best in Germany. Cacau (11.00 to score first, 4.00 anytime), their goal scorer in the first leg will be aiming to impress as he is out of contract at the end of the season and has been linked with the likes of Valencia and Sevilla in recent weeks.

Aleksandr Hleb (8.50 to score) , on loan from Barcelona, returns to the club he spent one season at and whilst Pavel Pogrebnyak is another experienced European campaigner, it would be a surprise if the busiest man on the field isn’t Stuttgart keeper (Mad) Jens Lehmann. (Stuttgart are 6.50 to keep a clean sheet.)

The Stuttgart staff and players have summed up the challenge awaiting them. Christian Gross (“We need the perfect match”) and Hleb (Barcelona “are simply the best team in the world”) recognise that they are heavy underdogs and it would take a brave punter to bet against Lionel Messi in his current form.

101gg predicts: Barcelona 3 – Stuttgart 0 (8.00)

Barcelona 1.25; Draw 5.50; Stuttgart 12.00

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