For FC Barcelona, the long road to Lisbon begins tomorrow when they host reigning Eredivisie champions AFC Ajax at 20:45 CET (live on Fox Sports 1). While new head coach Gerardo Martino has refused to publicly prioritise the UEFA Champions League ahead of La Liga, the former Newell's Old Boys coach is sure to be relishing his UCL debut and will hope to make a memorable impact against Frank de Boer's side in front of the adoring Camp Nou crowd.
Admittedly, it is a crowd that will not include Barcelona and Ajax legend, Johan Cruyff who is avoiding the clash because of his ongoing feud with incumbent Barça president Sandro Rosell, but the club are expecting a strong -- and passionate -- turnout for the group stage curtain-raiser.
However, Culés are understandably somewhat pessimistic ahead of the new campaign -- we're still only a few months removed from that humbling aggregate defeat against Bayern Munich after all. Without any extra defensive reinforcements, there is a belief that a similarly disappointing fate awaits the Blaugrana this season -- even if the club did invest €57 million in Brazilian superstar forward Neymar.
After his inspirational performances for Brazil in the summer's FIFA Confederations Cup, Neymar enhanced his reputation as a "big-game" player -- even in his short time in Catalunya, Neymar has already "won" Barcelona a trophy. For Santos, Neymar was a prolific scorer in the South American Champions League equivalent (the Copa Libertadores) -- with 14 goals in 25 appearances, Neymar was without a doubt the key driving force behind the Peixe’s recent success in the competition.
Can he replicate that success with FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League? Will Gerardo Martino be able to adjust to the tactical nuances of the world's premier club competition?
Will FC Barcelona challenge for honours once again?
It's likely that we will have to wait all season for a definitive answer, but one expects that we'll at least have a general taste of things to come after tomorrow's clash with AFC Ajax.
Gerardo Martino named a 20-man squad for tomorrow's fixture; third-choice goalkeeper Oier Olazabal hasn't made the cut, while Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba, Isaac Cuenca and Ibrahim Afellay all miss out through injury. On a brighter note, Spanish forward Pedro Rodriguez returns to the team after sitting out Saturday's nervy 3-2 win over Sevilla FC.
Victor Valdés enters tomorrow's match knowing that this will be his final UEFA Champions League campaign with his boyhood club -- and depending on next destination, this may even be his final campaign in the competition full stop. Of course, Valdés will almost certainly join another top team and return to the competition next season -- but I suppose that in football, there is no thing as certainty. That being said, regardless of his next employer, Valdés has signalled his intention to end his Barça career with a third UCL winners' medal, and few could argue with a goal like that.
In defense, Jordi Alba's injury somewhat disrupts Gerardo Martino's rotation plans -- if he even has any. No longer can Adriano Correia cover both flanks; he's exclusively required on the left for the next three weeks. In principle, that should translate to more game-time for Martin Montoya, but again, there is no such thing as certainty in football. What makes sense and is seen as logical by one person will be frowned upon by another -- so it's impossible to second guess Martino's intentions with the talented Catalan full-back.
Only a brave man would back Montoya to start tomorrow; Dani Alves has the right-back berth covered amidst new revelations about his character. As Culés, we know just how great Dani Alves is, as both a player and a character. Opposing fans are somewhat slow to acknowledge that fact -- but after Eric Abidal revealed that Alves actually offered to donate a portion of his liver? Well, now everyone has an idea of his generosity.
It could have derailed or even ended his career at the top level, but Alves offered regardless and deserves all the praise in the world for doing so.
In the centre of defense, Javier Mascherano will continue to partner Gerard Piqué, who fed the media a few interesting comments in today's pre-match press conference. As well as drawing attention to Real Madrid's supposed links/dependence on Bankia, Piqué continued to evaluate his own game after his recent comments on "tiki-taka" as a whole. Despite his admissions, Culés will no doubt continue to heavily criticise the Catalan centre-half, who in my opinion, hasn't even performed that badly.
Momentary lapses in concentration continue to plague his game, but he is human after all. It may be tough to admit with apparent footballing cyborgs/aliens like Xavi and Lionel Messi on the team, but our players are human just like you, and just like me. Just because Piqué's mistakes tend to lead to goals or chances, does that make them worse than the mistakes of the midfield and front-line, who allowed that attacker into the defensive third unchallenged? Is Piqué to blame for a lack of effort regarding tracking back or a consistent high-line of pressure?
To me, Piqué looks like a scapegoat; hopefully in time his form will improve and the fans will get off his back.
Moving onto the midfield, Sergio Busquets is set to continue at pivote, and if Gerardo Martino's pre-match comments are anything to go by, Busi is unlikely to be joined by Xavi. The veteran midfield maestro has played a lot of football recently and given his advancing years, it looks like he may be rested a little more regularly from now onwards. On a certain level, that’s sad – we all loved and enjoyed watching Xavi dominate game-in, game-out for a 60+ match season, but on another, it’s encouraging. It’s impressive that we can fall back on the likes of Cesc Fàbregas, and to a lesser extent, Sergi Roberto and not even have to worry about our performances drastically dipping.
In attack, Neymar is ready and primed for his UEFA Champions League debut – but would you really be surprised if he started on the bench? Martino was hesitant to introduce Neymar into the starting line-up in La Liga for instance; could he take a similar approach with the UCL? Perhaps it’s a little disrespectful to Ajax, but does Barcelona even need to start Neymar to secure the three points? Alexis Sánchez and Pedro have their ups and downs, but when push comes to shove, they are both good enough to partner Lionel Messi in attack. So the fabled "Nemesis" front-line may have to wait for their UEFA Champions League debut...
Believe it or not, this will be the first time that Barcelona and Ajax have ever played a competitive match against each other in their 100+ year history; given the ties between the two clubs, that it is rather surprising. They’ve shared coaches, star players and even footballing philosophies but they’ve never shared a football pitch in real action. The history and tradition of the two clubs is likely to be let down by the "competitiveness" of tomorrow’s game – literally no-one expects Ajax to grab a result at the Camp Nou.
But will that underdog status help motivate the players to make history? Despite the sale of a few key players –including Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld – Ajax possess a strong squad, all of whom are technically gifted. Given a chance, they could punish the fragile Barcelona defense.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Busquets, Fàbregas, Iniesta; Sánchez, Messi, Neymar
Ajax (4-3-3): Vermeer; Van Rhijn, Moisander, Denswil, Boilesen; Poulsen, Schone, Serero; Bojan, Sigƿórsson, Fischer
Barcelona should cruise to victory at the Camp Nou – but after the past two matches against Valencia and Sevilla respectively, you never quite know for sure. I’m going for an optimistic 4-1 home win.