Barcelona continue their quest to defend the UEFA Champions League trophy on Tuesday, when the Blaugrana open up the Camp Nou doors to welcome Bayer Leverkusen for their second group stage match in the European Cup, eager to get a victory and establish themselves as the favorites to win the group. After a draw with AS Roma in the competition opener two weeks ago, a triumph is badly needed, and Barça needs to make a statement for plenty of reasons.
First, the start to the season hasn't been the best in terms of performances. The defense has been hemorrhaging goals, with only two clean sheets in 10 matches so far; the offense has been way subpar, with creativity issues, finishing problems and very little excitement from a team that destroyed the world last season. Barça has scored more than three goals in a game only twice this season, and while they have been grinding their way to wins, most of those victories have been nerve-wrecking and unnecessarily difficult sometimes.
In addition to the performance issues, uncontrollable injury problems have plagued the squad so far, with over half of the team suffering from some kind of physical problem in just two months of this season. The latest, and most hurtful of them, is the knee ligament tear sustained by club superstar Lionel Messi, which will sideline him for at least seven weeks. So the road to improvement has to continue without the best guy, and things will be really difficult until the Argentine returns. And there's nothing worse than starting the life without Messi in one of the toughest games of the schedule.
But facing Leverkusen poses an interesting question: could Messi's injury force the team into becoming a more united group that will thrive under pressure and prove that it can be great without its star? Can this team answer all critics and prove why it is the Treble winner? We shall find out.
The confirmed absences of the aforementioned Messi, Thomas Vermaelen and Rafinha Alcântara will certainly narrow the options for coach Luis Enrique. Fortunately for him, two key players are back from the medical department: Jordi Alba, who had neck soreness and missed the last few games, is back and should be fit to start; and goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who missed the previous three weeks with a calf problem, trained normally with his teammates and should be ready for selection. He isn't the preferred goalkeeper for Cup matches, but with Marc-André ter Stegen's recent eyebrow-raising performances, there is a chance that the Chilean might make his return to the pitch on Tuesday.
That's the first question regarding the starting lineup. Bravo not only adds a lot of quality to the team, but there is a sense of security and leadership to the defense that Ter Stegen just can't provide. But Ter Stegen had a very competent performance last Saturday against Las Palmas, and the goal he conceded was not nearly his fault. The German was sensational in the Champions League last season, and maybe he can finally get a clean sheet this season by stopping a dangerous attack and proving himself again to the doubters.
In front of him, we should see a different defense again. After being given a rest on the weekend, Dani Alves should return to the lineup again. The Brazilian was murdered by Celta Vigo and especially Nolito the last time we saw him on the pitch, but because of Leverkusen's offense, he might no get too much trouble on his side, since the opposition likes to use the center of the pitch more with very little help from their full-backs. Alves is now fundamental to the team during the absence of Messi, since he'll have to provide offense on the right side even more without Leo there.
Gerard Piqué, who's on a poor run since returning from his suspension, has to improve in order to stabilize the defensive system. Leverkusen loves set pieces, which calls for another tall player alongside the Spaniard, and that guy is likely Jérémy Mathieu. The Frenchman was terrible in his last performance, but he was out of position and should have a better game if playing as a center-back. On the left-back slot, with Adriano Correia doubtful with a recurring hamstring problem, we are certain to see the return of Jordi Alba. The defense has been better whenever he's on the pitch, and his speed and awareness are key to the attack as well, and he will be huge on Tuesday.
In the midfield, we are likely going to see the most used group. Sergio Busquets played as an interior midfielder on Saturday, but he should return to his usual role as the pivote. After a good outing against Las Palmas, Ivan Rakitic is probably starting again, and the Croatian is one of the players who need to step up in the absence of Messi, since the pressure will be on the midfielders to recreate some of Leo's magic while he's out. Andrés Iniesta was rested last weekend, and his return is enormous since he's been one of the best Blaugrana performers so far.
On to the attacking trio, which won't be the destructive 'MSN' for the next two months. Neymar Jr. and Luis Suárez need to put the team on their backs and provide offense and goals. They're fantastic players on their own right, and part of the reason why they are on the team is to maintain Barça's high level whenever Messi is out. The Brazilian, especially, has the highest potential of the two, and he did put the team on his back in his first season, when Messi also missed two months with injury. Neymar was spectacular back then, and maybe this will be his team again until November. Who will be the third member of the frontline? Most likely Munir El-Haddadi, Leo's usual backup forward. If given a few consecutive matches to get used to the team, he might minimize the damage of not having Messi on the pitch. He has to. Will he do it?
The Germans have had an interesting start to the season, to say the least. In some games, like in the 4-1 win over BATE Borisov and the weekend 3-0 thrashing of Werder Bremen, they reached their full potential, using their incredible offensive depth to rotate the attacking forces and still play at a high level. In others, like the loss to relegation candidates Darmstadt, the team looked lost, unable to create alternatives and lacking good performances from its star players.
But the team that comes to Camp Nou is one of the most dangerous opponents a possession-heavy outfit like Barça can face. They can press high up the pitch and trouble the build up, but can also sit back on offense, get the ball back and unleash lightning quick counter-attacks with players like Julian Brandt and Karim Bellarabi. In addition to that, Hakan Çalhanoglu is one of the best set-piece takers in the world, and he will create some chances from free- or corner-kicks if given the chance. Competent strikers like Kevin Kampl, Stefan Kiessling and Chicharito Hernández can score, and deserve attention.
FC Barcelona 7-1 Bayer 04 Leverkusen - 3rd March 2012 - UEFA Champions League
One of the most memorable games in the Pep Guardiola Era saw one of the greatest individual performances in football history in the second leg of the Round of 16 in the 2011/12 season, at Camp Nou. Lionel Messi became the first player ever to score 5 goals in a Champions League game to give the Blaugrana a 10-2 aggregate result and qualify to the quarter-finals of that season. Cristian Tello scored the other two Barça goals, while Bellarabi got the consolation score for the Germans.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Munir, Suárez, Neymar Jr.
Leverkusen (4-4-2): Leno; Donati, Papadopoulos, Tah, Wendell; Bender, Kramer, Bellarabi, Çalhanoglu; Chicharito, Kiessling
It's impossible to figure out which Barça team we'll see without Messi, and the season hasn't been exciting. We'll probably concede again, but I'm confident that Neymar and Suárez will take over. Hard-fought, narrow, 2-1 victory.