FC Barcelona will be looking to end their UEFA Champions League group stage on a high tomorrow evening, when they travel south of Cologne to Leverkusen to take on Bayer 04 at the BayArena. While Barcelona have utterly dominated the group to seal top spot, the second berth for the knockout stages remains entirely up for grabs; all three sides could yet join the Blaugrana in the Round of 16, depending on results in Matchday 6.
While Roma’s goal difference is vastly inferior to Bayer’s, the Italians are currently in pole position for that runners-up spot in the group, courtesy of their head-to-head record with the German side. Therefore, Bayer know they must better Roma’s result, points-wise, to stand any chance of qualifying for the next round.
Of course, the simplest way for Bayer to do all they can to qualify is to beat FC Barcelona tomorrow. If they do that, while Roma may still progress with a win over BATE, they will have at least done all they can to move forward in the competition. If they can only muster a draw, then they will have to hope that BATE Borisov can claim an unlikely win in the Italian capital – hardly impossible, but highly improbable given how all four sides remain undefeated at home headed into the final matchday.
In case you haven’t noticed, this is therefore quite an important game for tomorrow’s hosts, even if the result has no material impact one way or the other on FC Barcelona. Will that motivation make a difference tomorrow, or will Luis Enrique be able to rally his troops and inspire them to put in another professional performance to get the job done against another difficult opponent?
Luis Enrique knows that the group is all wrapped up, so he’s taken full advantage by resting a few key players for tomorrow’s trip. Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique are being left at home for tactical reasons, while Dani Alves is suspended after his yellow card accumulation in the prior group games. When you factor in that Sergi Roberto, Rafinha Alcantara, Jeremy Mathieu and Douglas are already missing out through injury, while Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal are banned, then you’ll realise that Barcelona are therefore going to be a little light on numbers, at least from the senior squad.
The solution? Sergi Samper, Gerard Gumbau, Wilfrid Kaptoum and Juan Camara have all been given a call-up and will start tomorrow’s match on the bench. The eagle-eyed among you may have noted that Enrique has taken 19 players with him – which means that Claudio Bravo or Jordi Masip are going to sit in the stands. My money is on Bravo, but really it makes no difference either way.
That’s because Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start in goal; I think it’s safe to assume that he probably won’t be injured over the course of the game so the back-up is pretty irrelevant. Ahead of him, expect something approaching a makeshift defense from the Blaugrana: Adriano Correia at right-back, Marc Bartra and Thomas Vermalen are my picks for the centre, while Jordi Alba will retain his place at left-back.
In midfield, expect to see Sergi Samper from the start, likely with Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets in support; although any of the other B team players could easily rotate in if necessary. My money is on Gerard Gumbau rotating to right-back at some stage in the game, whether that’s off the bench or from midfield – so keep an eye out for that.
Then, moving on to the attack, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez have all been called up to the squad, and generally when they’ve travelled, they’ve also started. However, it would be prudent to suggest that at least one of them, if not two of them will be rested from the start tomorrow. If I had to guess, I would say that Neymar and Suarez will start on the bench, allowing Messi to maybe start at false nine, but I’m just guessing here.
Whatever happens, selection-wise, it’s bound to be fun.
So to recap: Bayer probably need a win tomorrow, which is handy because they’ve been doing anything but recently. With just one victory in their last seven matches, Roger Schmidt’s side have slipped down into mid-table in the Bundesliga; the idea of them suddenly recovering to knock off the European champions is a curious one, but the power of motivation and the support of a home crowd can do wondrous things. Why not inspire a Bayer win?
Certainly, the German side are good enough; from Javier Hernandez to Hakan Cahanoglu to Kyriakos Papadopoulos, they are stacked with good talent at every position. In Bernd Leno, they have a spectacular keeper capable of orchestrating a shut-out on any given night – and in Steffen Kiessling, they have a target man who, while out of form, remains capable of torturing a Barca defense who remain vulnerable against old-school number nines.
Roger Schmidt isn’t counting his chickens just yet, but he remains confident that his side can grab a result.
Bayer 04: LLWDDL
FC Barcelona 2-1 Bayer 04 Leverkusen – 29th September 2015 – UEFA Champions League
A header from Kyriakos Papadopoulos gave the visitors a surprise lead, which they admirably held onto for over 80 minutes, until a late and not entirely deserved one-two punch from Sergi Roberto and Luis Suarez stole the win for the hosts.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Adriano, Bartra, Vermaelen, Alba; Samper, Rakitic, Busquets; Munir, Messi, Sandro
Bayer (4-2-2-2): Leno; Donati, Papadopoulos, Toprak, Wendell; Kramer, Kampl; Bellarabi, Cahanoglu; Hernandez, Kiessling
Depends who starts upfront; without that information, I’m going to be cautious and predict a 2-2 draw.