FC Barcelona will make their 2014-15 UEFA Champions League debut tomorrow, as they prepare to welcome Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia to the Camp Nou in the opening match of Group F. Following two impressive, yet narrow victories over Villarreal CF and Athletic Bilbao, the Blaugrana sense that tomorrow’s match presents them with an opportunity to make a statement to the rest of the footballing world: a statement that real progress has and is being made under the guidance of new head coach, Luis Enrique.
The appointment of the former club captain has revolutionised the club, prompting some to draw comparisons with Barça’s recent success and to dub Lucho as the "next Pep Guardiola". Perhaps such comparisons are a little premature, but there can be no denying that the early signs are very positive indeed.
The subtle tactical changes implemented by Enrique have been paying dividends, that’s in spite of the fact that his philosophy is in its infancy and a number of key players have been missing. With experience, and with the introduction of Luis Suarez for instance, it’s fathomable that Barcelona can improve further, and as such, some Culés have allowed themselves to dream of a successful future.
There have even been hushed talks about a potential treble.
And therein lies the difference between Barça present, and Barça past. Forget the 4-3-1-2, forget the renewed emphasis on discipline and forget the new signings; the major difference is intangible. Belief, positivity, confidence; call it what you will, but the appointment of Luis Enrique has brought back the feel-good factor around the Camp Nou.
The players are united. The media are behind the club – for now. Even the most demanding Culés have been momentarily appeased and there is a sense of calm, a certain Zen in Catalunya; an atmosphere that some of Barça’s biggest rivals cannot match. Just look at Real Madrid for example. A disjointed locker room and discontent in the crowds have translated to poor performances on the field.
If your own house isn’t even in order, how can you hope to compete with your opposition?
With their off-field problems firmly in the past, Luis Enrique’s rejuvenated, reinvigorated FC Barcelona begin the road to Berlin tomorrow. Make sure your seatbelt is buckled; it promises to be one hell of a ride.
Following a morale-boosting 2-0 victory over Basque visitors, Athletic Bilbao on Saturday afternoon, FC Barcelona extended their winning streak to three games under new coach Luis Enrique, and even the most pessimistic Culé would admit that the Blaugrana are overwhelming favourites to make that four tomorrow against APOEL Nicosia. No disrespect to the Cypriot champions; they are here on merit and deserve their place in the competition, but that doesn’t mean that they can compete with a superpower like Barcelona.
Sure, they can try, but let’s be honest, an approach like that is not going to get them far. Instead, survival is likely to be the name of the game. Stay in the game for as long as possible, and hope for the best. If you concede? Well, survival quickly morphs into damage limitation and again, you hope for the best.
Luis Enrique will be mindful of that fact; APOEL are unlikely to come out and play so to speak, so while the temptation may be to implement full-scale changes, the best course may be to stick with a few of the big guns and rotate them out when the contest is over. After all, too many changes and you run the risk of a disjointed performance; not to mention the potential embarrassment that a disjointed performance may cause.
With that in mind, while I encourage changes, I also encourage a conservative approach.
Marc-André ter Stegen should rotate into the line-up to make his FC Barcelona debut following his summer move from Borussia Monchengladbach. The German was tipped to establish himself as Barça’s undisputed number one ahead of Chilean veteran, Claudio Bravo, but a fractured back kept ter Stegen sidelined for the start of the campaign, and after a few solid performances in his absence, Bravo appears to have earned Enrique’s trust as starting keeper.
While a clean sheet against APOEL tomorrow is unlikely to see ter Stegen reclaim the number one spot, it is at least, a start. Perhaps more than simple saves, Enrique will be looking for ter Stegen to demonstrate some of the talents that earmarked him as one of Victor Valdés’ potential successors -- of course, I’m talking about his confidence in possession, his rangy passing ability and his confidence in both rushing from goal in a one-on-one situation and to claim an aerial ball. His battle with Claudio Bravo will not be won overnight, but it could certainly be lost – and ter Stegen’s performance will hopefully reflect just that.
In defense, I would continue to rest Dani Alves and allow the Brazilian a chance to recuperate from his recent knock and hand the start to Martin Montoya, who impressed many with his mature, composed performance at the Camp Nou against Athletic Bilbao. Quite why the competence he displayed surprised so many is a mystery to me – Montoya would be probably be starting at right-back for Spain with a little more experience, so his talent should have never been in question.
Given an extended run in the first team, Montoya could quite feasibly displace Dani Alves ahead of the Brazilian’s departure in less than a years’ time – and who knows? Maybe this injury could be the "beginning of the end" for Alves as a starter? If Montoya continues in a similar vein to his display on Saturday, it’s definitely a possibility.
In the heart of defense, give me Marc Bartra and Gerard Piqué and I will be happy. Give me Gerard Piqué and Thomas Vermaelen and I will be happy. Give me Marc Bartra and Thomas Vermaelen and I will be happy...I’m sure you get the picture by now; for the first time in a long time, I don’t actually care what central defensive pairing we put out onto the field. No, that’s not because of the calibre of opposition, instead it’s down to that confidence I was alluding to earlier – I trust Lucho’s decision, and that’s even if he continues to select Javier Mascherano at the back.
At left-back, I would relish the chance to see Alejandro Grimaldo given a start for the senior squad, but I would equally welcome a chance to see the return of Adriano Correia, who could be in line to make his first appearance since the tail-end of last season. An established member of the first-team squad, Adriano has proven his worth in countless scenarios over the past few years – popping up with important goals in crucial matches, not to mention filling in at unfamiliar positions, again, in crucial fixtures. So, when Adriano’s health was in question over the summer break, I’m not sure it ever really sunk in as to what we might be missing.
Thankfully, that’s a reality we never had to deal with and Adriano has made a full recovery – let’s see him back where he belongs tomorrow; hopefully he’ll have a trademark golazo in his locker to commemorate that return.
In midfield, Luis Enrique has a few options at pivote. The obvious choice is to keep Sergio Busquets in the line-up. Busi has been slowly getting back to his best over the past few games after what some perceived to be a "shaky" season under Gerardo Martino and the side would absolutely benefit from his presence tomorrow. However, the question is whether it’s necessary and valuable to assess Busquets tomorrow against APOEL, when this opportunity could be afforded to Javier Mascherano for example, or even Sergi Samper.
My heart would suggest selecting Samper – with Alex Song gone, I see no reason why the youngster cannot deputise for Busquets in matches like this; after all, what does a more traditional defensive midfielder offer you against a team like APOEL? Answers on a postcard, or in the comments below – because I see no argument for it. However, I imagine that Samper starting is but a pipedream, so expect to see either Busquets or Mascherano as midfield anchor.
Ahead of the pivote, Xavi should make his first start of the Enrique era and in doing so, will be leading the side as the club’s official captain for the very first time. Not only that, but he will also equal Iker Casillas and Raul for the most appearances in Europe’s premier club competition by making his 142nd. After a few games of Rakitić, it will be interesting to see whether a start for Xavi will impact the team tactically, although one suspects that it may be difficult to gauge against APOEL anyway, and we may therefore have to wait until another day for an answer to that particular question.
Alongside Xavi, I expect that Enrique will favour Rafinha over Sergi Roberto, and of course the usual starting duo of Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić. Again, I wouldn’t be averse to seeing Xavi paired with his usual partner in crime or his "successor", but why not use the opportunity to give Rafinha more gametime in the Barça midfield? It’s clear that Enrique trusts him; he was a key member of his Celta Vigo squad after all, and just a fortnight or so ago, Lucho selected Rafinha ahead of Xavi for a crucial trip to El Madrigal. As such, it would be a surprise not to see the younger Alcântara brother’s name on the teamsheet.
In attack, we can pretty much guarantee that Lionel Messi will start. It’s just one of those basic facts of life – the sky is blue, the grass is green and Lionel Messi, if fit, will play football. There’s no point debating it, because it just is.
Should be fun to see him up against the APOEL defense though.
Especially if Messi is joined in attack by a spiky-haired Brazilian fellow by the name of Neymar. Rumour has it that the pair displayed quite a chemistry against Athletic at the weekend; at least, the two assists leading to goals hinted as much anyway. Neymar has been threatening greatness ever since his arrival in Catalunya, and this system appears to be getting the very best out of him – and from Lionel Messi. I’m sure Enrique apologises in advance APOEL, this could get ugly.
As it to compound matters further, La Masia’s latest starlet, Munir El-Haddadi may complete the attacking triumvirate, or it might be the UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup winning winger, Pedro Rodriguez. Either way, APOEL have their work cut out and that’s putting it lightly.
Quite where to begin...well, let’s start from the beginning: APOEL qualified for the group stage by virtue of a 5-1 aggregate victory over Danish champions Aalborg BK and are currently unbeaten through two games of their domestic season. In fact, like their opposition, APOEL are yet to concede in domestic action, running out comfortable 2-0 victors in their opening match against AEK Larnaca, and 1-0 winners at the weekend against Ermis.
However, that’s probably where the similarities end; APOEL don’t quite have the luxury of deciding whether or not they can rest a four-time Ballon d’Or winner in favour of a €91 million Brazilian forward for instance. Instead, head coach Giorgios Donis must decide whether to keep faith with his usual three-man strikeforce, or whether to drop a winger such as Gustavo Manduca into a more withdrawn, midfield role.
Quite how Donis will approach tomorrow’s match is unknown – there’s no real precedent for us to follow and plan against; APOEL simply don’t play teams of our calibre often enough to draw out a pattern. We’ll just have to hope our star-studded squad can cope with whatever tactical obstacles the Cypriots throw in their way...
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Adriano; Mascherano, Xavi, Rafinha; Munir, Messi, Neymar
APOEL (5-4-1): Pardo; Sergio, Carlao, Guilherme, Papazoglou, Antoniades; De Vincenti, Morais, Vincius, Manduca; Sheridan
Not even close. A Manita for me.