FC Barcelona’s quest to become the first team to successfully retain the UEFA Champions League begins tomorrow, when they travel to the Italian capital to take Serie A runners-up and current league leaders, AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. The contest will be Barcelona’s first match in Group F this season, and in many respects, it promises to be the toughest test of the group stage, particularly given the departures of some key names from second seeds, Bayer Leverkusen.
While Leverkusen have arguably regressed over the summer with the sale of Heung Min Son, AS Roma have strengthened their side considerably with the loan acquisitions of former Manchester City striker, Edin Dzeko, Arsenal goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny and Chelsea winger, Mohamed Salah. When you then factor in their signing of former Barcelona B starlet, Iago Falque, Roma have put themselves in an excellent position to build on last season’s success both on a domestic and continental front.
Last season, AS Roma were drawn into the "Group of Death" and were eventually knocked out on the final matchday by Bayern Munich and Manchester City, both of whom fell victim to the Blaugrana juggernaut in later rounds. Their campaign was filled with ups and downs, but served as valuable experience nonetheless and it’s hard to envisage them not making a better go of it this time round.
One thing that Rudi Garcia will be looking to replicate from last season however is their excellent start in the competition; last year, AS Roma were the standout performers from Matchday One with their 5-1 demolition of CSKA Moscow at this very stadium. It’s unlikely that a similar fate awaits Barcelona, but it’s something to be mindful of anyway.
For Luis Enrique, this will mark his first visit back to the Stadio Olimpico since his spell in charge in the Italian capital – and with the tabloids suggesting that he earmarked the Blaugrana as favourites for this year’s title, he’s under pressure to deliver a positive result. Now it’s up to the players to help him back it all up and get our UCL season off to a strong start.
Gerard Pique returns from his domestic suspension for this one, and not a moment too soon either as the weekend’s win over Atletico Madrid was somewhat marred by an injury to Thomas Vermaelen. The Belgia centre-half had been in excellent for thus far this season for the Blaugrana, but Pique’s return more than compensates for his absence. Aside from that one change, we’re pretty much unchanged from Saturday – although a couple of B team players have also made the trip to Italy, where they will almost certainly end up watching from the stands.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start in goal and will be hoping that the return of the Champions League will help to kick-start his season after a somewhat mixed start to his 2015/16 campaign. The German goalkeeper was obviously such an integral part of the team that won it all last season, so it’s likely that confidence is his only issue. If he can relax, then the chances are that he will find his form again – but don’t count on that happening at the Stadio Olimpico tomorrow, it can get exceptionally loud and especially intimidating on European nights.
In defense, Sergi Roberto will continue at right-back, while Jordi Alba will start on the opposite flank. I suppose that Enrique could rotate in Adriano Correia if he wanted to, but really, that would be unnecessary – Adriano can always play at the weekend if we want to hand Roberto some rest. Then, in the heart of defense expect to see Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique reunited – barring a late injury or matchday illness.
Sergio Busquets will then anchor the midfield as per usual, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Blaugrana cope against an impressive Roma midfield that boasts just as talent in the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and former Barca midfielder, Seydou Keita.
If Andres Iniesta maintains his recent level of form, it might not matter who Roma can count on – the legendary midfielder has been simply irrepressible as of late and a continuation of this would be more than welcome tomorrow. Meanwhile, Ivan Rakitic’s withdrawal at the weekend must mean that he is set to start as well, even in spite of Rafinha’s spell of good form.
And the attack selects itself: Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar will be starting together for the first time this season, and if their hour in the Joan Gamper Trophy against this very same Roma side is anything to go by, or indeed if the final half-hour against Atleti is any indication…well, we can be confident of our chances.
The big news is that Bosnian midfield maestro, Miralem Pjanic, is injured and will not be able to feature in tomorrow’s match. It’s a similar story for Kevin Strootman who is also sidelined, but leaving those two absentees aside, Roma have their full squad available for selection. That means a few selection dilemmas for head coach, Rudi Garcia. Does he go for the usual 4-3-3, or a more pragmatic 4-2-3-1?
AS Roma 3-0 FC Barcelona – 26th February 2002 – UEFA Champions League
Goals from Emerson, Vincenzo Montella and Damiano Tommasi condemned the Blaugrana to UEFA Champions League elimination, as a Barca side featuring the likes of Luis Enrique, Patrick Kluivert and Rivaldo slumped to an emphatic loss at the Stadio Olimpico.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Roma (4-3-2-1): Szczesny; Torosidis, Manolas, Castan, Digne; De Rossi, Nainggolan, Keita; Salah, Dzeko, Gervinho
I’m backing the Blaugrana to make a statement here; 3-0 to the visitors.