Football is crazy. It never stops, and positive results don't really matter three days later if you get a negative one against an easier opponent. That's the case for Barcelona, who is still buzzing following the sensational showing in El Clásico. The Blaugranes went to Santiago Bernabéu, destroyed Real Madrid, and are now back home for an important UEFA Champions League encounter with AS Roma. A victory clinches both a spot in the European Cup knockout round and a group stage first place.
It is really, really hard to follow up on that spectacular performance against your biggest rival just three days later. There is a special level of concentration and intensity you reserve for a rivalry matchup, and if you reach the apex of that, it's nearly impossible to expect or even see that again in such a small interval.
That's the challenge for Luis Enrique: to let the Clásico win serve as a catalyst for a run of great performances, not as a repeatable goal. It's not repeatable because it's not the same game or atmosphere, but it does serve as a blueprint for what path the team needs to follow in order to keep a similar high level in the upcoming encounters. In that sense, facing a team like Roma is a good thing. It's not as good or hated as Madrid, but is strong enough to pose a threat and force the team to be at its best, even if that best isn't what we saw on Saturday.
A win is fundamental in so many ways, and with better health, great individual play and even better collective performances, this could be the start of something amazing. Is it going to be?
The only piece of bad news from an unforgettable night in the Spanish capital was Javier Mascherano, who had to leave the game early in the first half after literally getting kicked in the nuts by James Rodríguez. He couldn't continue, but postgame tests revealed no muscular damage, which is very good to hear after a ridiculous number of muscular injuries to over half of the squad. However, because of the short notice, he is a major doubt for the Roma match, but not for the weekend.
That means that, other than the long-term absence of Rafinha Alcântara, and the injury to bench warmer Douglas Pereira, there are no serious problems for the first time this season. Coach Enrique is working with a bigger, healthier squad, which will heavily - and positively - affect his rotation system, meaning he can go back to what he did last season and preserve player fitness for the latter portions of this new campaign. Because nearly every player is on a good run of form, rotating will not have a negative impact on the overall quality of the team, which is the goal when you change your lineup for every match.
Gerard Piqué, Mascherano and Mathieu had a sensational defensive night against Madrid, but with the Argentinian out, it's likely that the other two remain the center-back pairing for Tuesday. If he decides to rotate, however, Lucho can look to Marc Bartra and Thomas Vermaelen and see two in-form defenders as well, which is amazing to see after such poor defensive performances earlier this season. Jordi Alba and Dani Alves should retain their full-back starts, with Marc-André ter Stegen picking up his Cup gloves again.
In the midfield, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andrés Iniesta were all incredible at the Bernabéu, and with no need to rest - they played very few, if any minutes in the international break --, they should be good to go again from the initial whistle. They turned back the clock to the Pep Guardiola Era last Saturday, dominating the midfield and dictating the pace of play, which was key to getting that big victory.
On to the attacking trio, which is now hard to predict with the return of Lionel Messi. If Enrique sticks with his Saturday starters, he will continue to reward and give opportunities to Sergi Roberto, who continues to impress and become a key component of the Blaugrana system, and unthinkable feat not too long ago. Personally, if I were Lucho, I'd keep building up Messi's fitness slowly, bringing him in at halftime or the one-hour mark, keeping Roberto in the lineup and continuing to rely on the magical form of Neymar and Luis Suárez. As crazy and egregious as it might sound, rushing Messi into a starting slot again without being fully ready for it could be harmful for the other two, who naturally have to defer to best player in the world instead of dominating by themselves like they have done for the past two months.
Barça have to play a very safe game against the Italians, who have a couple of pacey forwards who will quickly counter on every opportunity, especially at Camp Nou where the hosts usually dominate possession and keep a very high line with their center-backs. That leads me to think Lucho is going to field a more possession-oriented lineup, and even if he does start Messi, he will certainly instruct Leo to be more of a creator inside, rather than an all-out attacker on the outside.
Everything should be fine, though. As he's proven time and time again, Luis Enrique is incredible at his job.
Things are not easy for the Italians right now. Even though they have racked up wins in Serie A, they've lost one important player after another to injury. Francesco Totti, Mohamed Salah and Gervinho, key attackers, are certain to miss the match at Camp Nou with physical problems. Danielle De Rossi, the team's best defender, is a major doubt with a thigh issue and is running out of time, but could make it in time to face the Blaugranes.
Without Salah and Gervinho, Roma won't be as fast in the counter-attack, but are likely to use Alessandro Florenzi, the guy who scored a goal from the midfield against Barça a couple of months ago, as a wing option. He's fast and good defensively, and could cause problems on the break.
Edin Dzeko, who has been in good form, and Miralem Pjanic, absolutely tearing up at the midfield, are certain to start, and are the most dangerous pieces of the Giallorossi lineup. Radja Nainggolan, who badly injured Rafinha Alcântara, will start as well, which is very worrying to every Barça players' ankles and knees.
Please don't be dumb and mean again, Radja. Please. Pretty please?
AS Roma 1-1 FC Barcelona - 16th September 2015 - UEFA Champions League
A bittersweet game for the Blaugrana. Luis Suárez scored the opening goal on a dominant Barça performance, but an unbelievable goal from Florenzi and a season-ending injury for Rafinha turned the night into a bad one.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Messi, Suárez, Neymar
Roma (4-3-3): Szczesny; Maicon, Manolas, Rüdiger, Digne; Keita, Nainggolan, Pjanic; Florenzi, Dzeko, Falqué
This has Trap Game potential because of everything we just considered about the win at El Clásico, but with Messi hungry for minutes and goals in his return to Camp Nou and ‘SN' in spectacular form, this should go down as a W. 3-0 Barça.