Barca aiming for another shut-out, while City look to exploit Villarreal's high line

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses the StatsZone app – from FFT and Opta, available now – to preview the more interesting Champions League fixtures... 

This week’s Champions League fixtures are a reverse of those from two weeks ago, and as such Manchester City will travel to Spain to face a Villarreal side they eventually beat 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium.

An interesting feature of Villarreal’s game dating back to Manuel Pellegrini’s reign has been their use of a high defensive line, with the aim of catching opponents offside.

There is a specific tactic they use – they’re intent on not dropping into their own penalty box, instead holding a line on the edge of the area, even when the position of the ball dictates that naturally, they should drop deeper.

It’s a strange strategy, and one that can be exploited by opponents with the ability to play through balls. Manchester City’s late winner at the Etihad Stadium came because of a ball played in between the goalkeeper and the defence for Sergio Aguero to turn in.

The number of times Villarreal catch the opposition offside is amazing, yet City will fancy their chances of getting in behind them.

Viktoria Plzen welcome Barcelona to the Struncovy Sady Stadion tonight, two weeks after they restricted Barcelona to a relatively narrow 2-0 win at the Camp Nou.

That score-line was rather respectable for the Czech club, but it doesn’t underline the dominance Pep Guardiola’s side enjoyed throughout the match – they had 18 attempts on goal, while Plzen didn’t muster a single effort on goal.

Opta stats show that this was only the second time in the past five seasons that a side has failed to attempt a shot at goal in a Champions League game. The other occasion was in Arsenal’s visit to the Camp Nou last season, though the Gunners actually managed to score thanks to Sergio Busquets’ own goal.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi comes into the game having been nominated for FIFA’s Ballon D0’Or award, for which he is unsurprisingly the clear favourite – 1/8, according to some bookmakers.

Messi is now used as the central forward – a false nine, if you will – rather than the right-wing position in which he made his name.

The positions of his received passes in the previous game against Plzen show that he still prefers to drift over to the right of the pitch, however, with Andres Iniesta moving forward into an inside-left position to give Barcelona options across the pitch.

The other fixture in Group H sees AC Milan travel to Belarus to face BATE Borisov. If they and Barca both avoid defeat away from home on Tuesday evening, they will cement their place in the knockout stages of the competition after just four matches.

Milan also launched an amazing number of shots on the BATE goal – though that was mainly down to one man. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had an amazing ten shots two weeks ago at the San Siro, and only one was on target - so he’ll be thankful that it went in to spare his blushes.

The diagram of the Swede’s passes received shows how difficult his movement is to predict – he gets the ball all over the opposition half.

If BATE are to cause an upset at home, they would do well to test Milan in the air. In their previous meeting the Belarusian side won 69% of aerial duels. These all took place in the centre of the pitch, and it might be wise to test Milan closer to their own goal.

The surprise packages of the Champions League so far are surely Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia, who are currently sitting pretty at the top of one of the most competitive groups in the competition. Written off as no-hopers before the tournament started, they’ve picked up draws away at Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk, and a home win over Zenit St Petersburg.

One of the things they did well against Porto, the superior technical side, was to break the game up and make it scrappy, stopping Porto from finding their rhythm. The game was stopped every two minutes for a foul, with an amazing 46 free-kicks conceded.

The positions of the free-kicks conceded are also interesting. Porto, a side who rely on pressing high up the pitch, commit over two-thirds of their fouls in the opposition half, while APOEL concentrated on flooding the midfield, conceding fouls only in the middle third of the pitch – and none in central shooting positions. That said, with Porto’s Hulk often tempted to shoot from anywhere in the opposition half, some of those may be within his range…

Stats Zone, the app from FourFourTwo powered by data from Opta, is available now at the iTunes App Store  

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