Here are Barça Blaugranes, we are dedicated to bringing you the best coverage of the reigning La Liga champions, although as fans ourselves we know that our knowledge and experience of the game can only stretch so far. That’s why we’ve teamed up with the great people over at FOX Sports to ask a few questions to their expert team of soccer analysts, comprised of USMNT legend and former Fulham striker, Brian McBride as well as former England international full-back, Warren Barton. The duo will be fronting FOX Sports coverage of the UEFA Champions League, which continues tonight from 14:00 ET.
Barca Blaugranes: Despite claiming the last three Eredivisie titles, Ajax have been a little slow out of the gates this season and are also conceding an awful lot of goals following the sale of Toby Alderweireld. Do you think that they still possess the quality to truly contend with Barcelona, particularly given the strength of Barça’s star-studded attack?
Warren Barton: No, I think Ajax are going to find it very difficult; Frank de Boer has done an excellent job at the domestic level utilising the academy and the young players that are coming through the ranks, but when they go into the Champions League and up against the financial clout of teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, they find it very difficult.
It’s a great experience for these players, although when you look at the firepower that Barcelona have going forward I think it will be too much for them; again it’s about gaining experience, increasing revenue...but there’s still this academy mentality of getting players and then selling them off; as we’ve seen recently, there’s a great conveyer belt of players moving on.
BB: Aside from their opening day victory over Levante, Barcelona are yet to win a match by more than a solitary goal; can you see their defensive frailties and occasional wastefulness in front of goal harming their chances of topping the group, or even progressing in general?
Brian McBride: No; I’ve got concerns for the later rounds, just because I think there are some major issues at the back, especially without Puyol. Javier Mascherano sort of fits in: he’s a great reader of the game but he’s not a “defend-first” kind of guy. I think often when he gets put back there he almost gives you an all-or-nothing style of defending, where sometimes he is made to pay. The rest of the team is basically attackers, so the only real fit “defender” is Gerard Piqué and he’s the main ‘defend-first’ kind of guy. He’s smart enough to stop an attack if they get caught out, which with Barcelona who push a lot of players forward, happens sometimes.
With Alves and Alba, they are much more attacking players. They will track back and will defend, but their job and the way they see themselves is more as a player that will link up with the rest of the team. I mean Dani Alves is even scoring goals this year, when usually he’s more of a provider, so yeah, I’m surprised that they didn’t buy a centre-back, I know that they talked a lot about Thiago Silva, trying to bring him across but I would have looked at Ezequiel Garay, maybe tried to “poach” him from Benfica – I’m really high on him, I think he’s an excellent centre-back – but will this keep them from coming out of the group? No, not at all.
WB: No, I think they will progress, I think their offensive line-up is capable of winning this group quite comfortably and when you look at AC Milan and Ajax and Celtic, they are not at the capabilities of say a Dortmund, or a Bayern Munich so I think their back-line will not be tested to the level that it will be stretched later in the competition.
I do think that they miss Carles Puyol, their captain and leader at the back and we’ve been saying for some time that Victor Valdés might not be the strongest goalkeeper out there in Europe, so I think that the way that they play does leave them vulnerable to the bigger teams, particularly on the counter-attack like Bayern Munich showed last season. If you really put them under pressure, they find it very difficult.
BB: Brian, you made a successful transition from playing football in the United States and the MLS to excelling in Europe and in arguably the strongest league in the world; how would you rate Neymar’s performances since joining Barcelona from Brazil? Do you think that he has adapted well to the style of play in Europe?
BM: I think that’s still ongoing; he’s done well with the chances that he’s gotten and for him, I think it’s been an eye-opening experience – at least from the outside looking in – it looks like more like he’s trying to figure out that he can trust his new teammates. What I mean by that is, in the past when you’ve seen him, he’s just so exceptional at the individual side: technically he’s brilliant, he can get by players, he can of course put himself in positions to score goals – but I think with Barcelona, you’ve got a team that if you give the ball, he’ll give it back to you and the more he understands I think the more dangerous he’s going to be.
There’s always going to be times when he needs to show that brilliance – that individual balance of breaking players down and beating one or two opponents, but now he’s got teammates that can pre-empt his pace and ability to run off the ball; I think he’ll just continue to get better and better.
Overall, he’s been good; moving countries and moving teams it does take time but you can still see the amount of talent that he has – so I can only see him getting better and better.
BB: So, do you believe that he is capable of making a huge impact on the Champions League, just as his compatriot Oscar did last season for Chelsea?
BM: Yeah, he’s a different type of player to Oscar – last season we got to see Oscar’s ability to score goals from distance and just like he was able to use Juan Mata to free himself from defenders and give himself space, Neymar could definitely have a huge impact. Like I said, I see them as different types of players, but Neymar just needs to learn from the fact that players have never played against him. Those players may have seen him on TV, but until you go up against a player like that, you don’t know how to defend them. So individually, he can have an impact for sure, but I think the more he trusts his teammates, the bigger impact he’s going to have.
BB: Warren, as a former full-back yourself, I’d like to get your thoughts on Barcelona’s current crop of left-backs – for instance, do you believe that Jordi Alba’s offensive instincts are benefitting Barcelona or hindering them in the Champions League?
WB: No, it’s early days; I think he’s a quality player – he’s shown that for the national team – and if you look at Adriano as well, they have got enough talent and they are expected to go forward. I think with Alba, he’s strong defensively – I remember being at Newcastle, you get caught up in wanting to entertain and join the party, I think that’s just what happens sometimes.
BB: So would you rate Barcelona’s chances of keeping Ajax’s trademark 4-3-3 at bay if both full-backs attack per usual?
WB: Yeah, I think the way that Ajax have played – and I played against them and teams with the Dutch mentality – is that the wide players are not strong enough to stay forward, mentally strong enough that is. And if they see Barcelona attacking, wave after wave, then they’ll have to defend against them because it’s OK being brave and standing up there, but they haven’t got a Marc Overmars from times gone by, who could hold it up and be a threat. They need to try and help out in the midfield instead, keep an eye on the likes of Messi and Iniesta, so I think their wide players will do more defensive work than they’re expected to do offensive work.
We’d like to thank everyone at FOX Sports for taking the time to work with us, as well as Brian, Eric and Warren for providing us with their expert insight. For more insight and analysis, be sure to catch their coverage of tonight’s match at 14:30 ET, live on FOX Sports 1, and check in after the final whistle here at Barça Blaugranes for full post-match coverage, including highlights and player ratings.
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