Riding high after their comfortable weekend thrashing of Rayo Vallecano, FC Barcelona travel to Eastern Europe tomorrow, where they will take on Belarusian champions BATE Borisov at the Borisov Arena. While BATE are the fourth seeds in a competitive group, and therefore not expected to challenge the Blaugrana, recent form suggests that the hosts should not be taken lightly.
In the previous matchday, AS Roma visited Belarus on a good run of form – only to fall behind by three goals and eventually lose 3-2 to Alyaksandr Yermakovich’s side. The surprise victory lifted the underdogs off the foot of the Group E standings and into a tie on points with Bayer Leverkusen, although their goal differential is significantly weaker than the Germans.
The Blaugrana on the other hand has faltered somewhat in the opening stages of their UEFA Champions League title defense, dropping points to Roma in their opening match of the group stage, before a thoroughly unconvincing and perhaps undeserved victory against Bayer Leverkusen last time out at the Camp Nou. Across the 180 minutes of European football thus far this season, Barça have come across as distinctly mediocre, and surprisingly beatable – could it be that tomorrow represents a continuation of that trend?
The weekend’s three-goal victory over Rayo Vallecano would, at face value, suggest not. Barcelona’s five-goal haul could have easily doubled if not for some lackadaisical finishing and occasionally shoddy officiating. However, the second-half defensive collapse gives Luis Enrique cause for concern, while individual performances like the one we saw from Neymar on Saturday cannot be expected every matchday.
Does that mean that I’m expecting an upset tomorrow? Of course not, but it might be wise to temper expectations just a tad, and expect a close-fought, tight affair on the outskirts of Minsk.
Unsurprisingly, not much has changed since Saturday. Everyone who was available for the match against Rayo remains available for the trip to Belarus, and by and large, one could be forgiven for anticipating a similar sort of line-up from Luis Enrique tomorrow. Of course, there will be some rotation and even at this stage, it’s fairly easy to expect what changes Lucho might make – but with SD Eibar to visit the Camp Nou this coming weekend, there’s no real need for full-scale changes.
In goal, Marc-André ter Stegen will replace Claudio Bravo, who put in a strong performance at the weekend in spite of conceding two goals. The Chilean shot-stopper was a commanding presence for the most part, maintaining his composure and focus for the full 90 minutes, even while some of his defenders struggled to do so. MAtS on the other hand has got off to a slow start this campaign, but recent performances have shown improvements.
Most notably, against Bayer Leverkusen, ter Stegen was outstanding and his saves throughout the match arguably kept us in the game as the German side pushed us onto our back foot. Let’s hope that tomorrow marks a continuation of that form and maybe even our first clean sheet in nine matches. Wouldn’t that be nice?
A lot of that will depend on the defense, who are increasingly looking more and more like the problem that they used to be in seasons past. On Saturday, at least half of the back four looked like garbage – and the oft-criticised Jeremy Mathieu was our strongest performer. That’s worrying, even before you consider the introduction of Douglas. The issue is that we’ve taken so many beatings this season that it’s tough to argue that they will have learned their lesson in time for tomorrow’s match.
Like most things, the defense aren’t going to become magically unbeatable again overnight; it’s going to take weeks of steady improvement and even then, there are no guarantees. For all you NFL fans out there, think of the Seahawks and how their immortal defense has lost a step over the off-season. In my eyes, Barça are similar and it’s having a notable impact on their ability to grind out results.
I’d like to see some improvement in particular from Dani Alves, who has consistently underperformed since signing an extension to his contract in Catalunya. Arguably the only reason that Alves hasn’t been benched for good is because of our midfield crisis, and how our lack of numbers in that area of the field has prolonged Sergi Roberto’s career as a central midfielder. With Andrés Iniesta set to return soon, and with January and therefore, the registration of Aleix Vidal fast approaching, Alves must pick up his form and fast, before it really is too late.
In the heart of defense, I sympathise with Gerard Piqué, who has struggled for consistency without a regular central defensive partner. Some weeks it’s Jeremy Mathieu, others it’s Javier Mascherano. Sometimes it’s Thomas Vermaelen and occasionally, it’s Marc Bartra. I’d like to think instability is the reason for some of his more questionable performances, although I’m not sure how long that defense will hold up – so a run of strong showings would be appreciated, if you’re reading Geri.
Speaking of ever-changing defensive partners, I wouldn’t bank on seeing Mathieu tomorrow; rather I think it’s a toss-up between Javier Mascherano and Thomas Vermaelen. My money is on the Belgian making his return from injury, primarily because I anticipate some rotation in midfield which will necessitate Mascherano occupying the pivote role. Plus, that way Marc Bartra can sub in around the hour mark, and possibly then progress onto a start against Eibar at the weekend.
Meanwhile, Jordi Alba should continue at left-back – but from my spot behind the goal on Saturday, he looked to tire late on against the impressive Lass Bangoura, so maybe a rest isn’t out of the question? That would open the door for Adriano Correia, or potentially even Mathieu to switch position (again), but I’d rate the chances of that happening being slim to none.
In midfield, I alluded to it earlier, but to reiterate, I expect to see Javier Mascherano at pivote tomorrow, with Sergio Busquets advancing to occupy a more advanced position alongside Ivan Rakitić. It isn’t the most creative midfield, but it features our three best non-injured midfielders – and I think that Lucho will opt for that combination after losing the possession battle against Rayo on Saturday and because of the likely harsh conditions in Belarus.
Of course, that would mean that Sergi Roberto drops to the bench after one of the strongest displays of his Barça career, in midfield at least. The Catalan was everywhere on Saturday and I was especially impressed with his end product, which has previously been lacking. On another night, his defense-splitting pass to Ivan Rakitić would have seen him credited with an assist, and he could have easily ended with a goal as well, if not for a stunning stop from Toño.
It’d be a shame to see him lose that momentum by starting on the bench tomorrow, but I still think that Lucho will do it anyway.
In attack, the "Sandro on right-wing" experiment has surely ended with the past weekend, as he once again struggled to have an impact from the right-hand side against an open Rayo defense. It isn’t that he’s a bad player, but his skill-set certainly isn’t suited to a spot on the right-flank and as such, his confidence is shot and that’s causing him to over think the areas where he usually excels. His finishing for instance isn’t as bad as we saw on Saturday – but that lack of confidence has had a notable impact.
The same could probably be said for Munir, at least in a Barça jersey. His performances since bursting onto the scene a year ago have been mixed, if not consistently underwhelming, even if he still scores for fun on international duty. If he can find some way to translate that into domestic action, then Munir could easily cement himself as a viable option off the bench for the MSN triumvirate, but at present, he risks being ostracised by a new arrival in January.
Maybe tomorrow is where he finds his form again?
The only name that the majority of Culés would recognise in the BATE Borisov roster is Aleksandr Hleb, but the former Barça midfielder hasn’t even made the cut for tomorrow’s match, a fact that really shouldn’t surprise anyone, a) based on his less than inspiring spell at Barcelona, we know how inconsistent and untrustworthy Hleb can be, and more pertinently, b) because he’s barely featured at all this season anyway.
In nigh on three months since arriving back at the club for a third time, Hleb has made just four appearances in the league, so he was never going to feature in this match.
Speaking of the Belarusian domestic scene, it’ll come as no surprise that BATE wrapped up the league title at the weekend; their Friday evening win over Vitebsk marked their tenth consecutive Premier Division triumph a feat that is quite simply staggering no matter which way you look at it. Alexei Rios and Dmitri Mozolevski (on his season debut no less) got the goals on the night, although everyone at the club knows that facing Barcelona is a different proposition altogether.
In his pre-match press conference, Yermakovich noted that everyone will have play to their maximum if they are to stand any chance of securing a share of the spoils, admitting that he knows that at least a portion of tomorrow’s crowd will be coming to see Barça, rather than supporting their team as ardently as they usually would.
Top scorer, Vitali Rodionov is injured and so is Latvian centre-half, Kaspars Dubra, giving their head coach a significant problem with personnel numbers at the back. On the plus side, back-up striker Nikolai Signevich is training with the group, and could yet feature depending on his progress before kick-off.
FC Barcelona 4-0 BATE Borisov – 6th December 2011 – UEFA Champions League
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the Pep era when you look at this one; this was mainly an outing for the B team and assorted fringe players, but it was also a great performance from a Barça team oozing with chemistry. Goals from Sergi Roberto, Pedro (2) and Martin Montoya secured the "W" on the night.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Vermaelen, Alba; Mascherano, Rakitić, Busquets; Munir, Suarez, Neymar
BATE (4-2-3-1): Chernik; Rios, Milunovic, Polyakov, Mladenovic; Yablonski, Nikolic; Stasevich, Gordejchuk,Rios; Mozolevski
It’ll be close for a long period, but our quality will shine through in a 3-1 win.