FC Barcelona will be looking to bounce-back from their latest setback tomorrow when they return to UEFA Champions League action, where a win would see the Blaugrana secure safe passage into the knockout stages. So, even as Barcelona’s La Liga title challenge has hit a slight bump, everything seems to be on track on the continental front; aside from one sub-par half against Manchester City, Barça have dominated this group and will be searching to consolidate their position as group leaders with a win at Celtic Park.
However, to say that all is rosy in Catalunya would be to miss the point. The weekend draw against Malaga has sent vocal swathes of the fan-base into something of a panic and if you venture onto social media, popular opinion appears to suggest that Barcelona are in crisis.
Theories are abound that the team doesn't have a true identity, a philosophy, under Luis Enrique and that past successes have been contingent upon superstar performances rather than a collective cohesion. Some of these theories are based on facts, that isn't up for debate, but the doom and gloom narrative is tiring and in this fan's opinion, at its worst is sensationalist hyperbole pitched for attention and shock value.
Prominent members of the conventional media and the influential Barça social media space have been busy churning out editorials or Twitter threads analysing what they label as irrefutable proof of a decline; evidently they have picked up on the latest and greatest trend: exasperating the general populous' greatest fears rather than assessing the wider picture. After all, doom and gloom doesn’t just win votes in 2016, it also drives traffic, RTs and shares.
In this alternate reality, our failure to break the deadlock against Malaga was not down to some questionable decisions from the referee – it was down to some systemic weakness, coupled with a crippling bout of Messidependencia. The latter in particular is paraded as quite possibly the worst thing in the world of football; how can such a great team be so dependent upon the most transcendent player to ever grace the sport?
I could be reductive and point to our previous encounters with Malaga, matches in which both Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez have started and in which we have also failed to score – but leaving those aside for a moment just sit back, take a moment and really think about the criticism that’s being levelled at Luis Enrique. If he should address Messidependencia and this is deemed to be an easy problem to solve, then what would you propose the solution might be?
It’s only natural that a team’s performance would drop noticeably without the best player to ever play the sport and the same is true for even great teams. Without Michael Jordan, the 1993-94 Chicago Bulls lost in the Eastern Conference semi-finals; they remained a great team, but of course over the course of the season as a whole, they missed that extra gear or two that Jordan would help them reach.
Just because Luis Enrique builds his squad and his team around the greatest player in history, that doesn’t mean he’s a bad coach. If he preaches the importance of a solid foundation as a basis to liberate a few superstar players, that doesn’t mean his squad lacks identity – it just means that this is the identity he has chosen to instil in his team. Contrary to what Arsenal fans might like to say, no football team is invincible. Every side has its ups and downs; every season has its ebbs and its flows.
If, after a few draws and a couple of defeats you are growing weary of Luis Enrique and FC Barcelona, I will remind you that no-one is forcing you to watch. If, as a fan you watch each match and choose to focus on the negatives, rather than pay attention to the positives, then that’s your decision and I respect that.
Tomorrow however, if you feel like that I implore you to sit down and kick back after a long day at work, maybe crack open an Estrella or two and order some food. Get yourself ready, tune in to the game and just take it for what it is. Watching football is supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be entertaining – cast aside the worries about points and consider that for a moment. Chances are you’ll realise, just like the rest of us, that being a Barça fan is something joyous and perhaps one of the best things in the world.
We have our difficult moments, but I still wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Lionel Messi returns after illness ruled him out of the weekend draw with Malaga, while Luis Suarez returns to the squad after serving his one match La Liga suspension. Marlon joins the squad as defensive cover with Samuel Umtiti and Jeremy Mathieu both absent through injury.
Expect Enrique to make some changes tomorrow; the Anoeta beckons at the weekend and given how our La Liga campaign is progressing, we cannot afford our usual slip-up in the Basque Country. Jordi Alba should make his first start back from injury after subbing on at the weekend, while I suspect that Sergio Busquets and Neymar may both be rested, with Andre Gomes and Arda Turan likely to deputise in each respective spot.
I also expect Ivan Rakitic to return to the starting line-up; his omission at the weekend caught a few by surprise – but clearly Enrique had one eye on this fixture and the difficulties that Barcelona could face away at Celtic Park. It’s never been an easy place to visit – but beware the wounded animal. Backed into a corner by the draw with Malaga on Saturday, expect Barcelona to come out swinging tomorrow and much like they were in September, Celtic could just be the wrong team, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Despite being decimated at the Camp Nou in September, Celtic have actually fared relatively well since that fateful night; in domestic competition, they have once again established themselves at the top of the table, but that almost goes without saying in Scotland. With a ten point lead in the Premiership, they have the luxury of resting players whenever they see fit.
Kolo Toure and Emilio Izaguirre were handed the night off against Kilmarnock last Friday, meaning that they should both be rested for this momentous night. Tom Rogic was also rotated out of the side last week, but he too could push for a recall. The man to watch will be striker Moussa Dembele; the Frenchman looked dangerous at the Camp Nou and with the rapturous support of the Celtic fans behind him, this could be one of the best nights of his young career.
FC Barcelona 7-0 Celtic FC – 13th September 2016 – UEFA Champions League
Messi grabbed a hat-trick, Luis Suarez got a brace, while both Neymar and Andres Iniesta added to Celtic’s misery. A timely reminder of how good this team can be with Enrique at the helm.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Gomes, Rakitic, Denis; Messi, Suarez, Arda
Celtic (4-2-3-1): Gordon; Lustig, Toure, Sviatchenko, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Forrest, Rogic, Sinclair; Dembele
The crowd will make a difference, but Barcelona have a point to prove. If preseason and the match in September taught us anything, it’s that Celtic aren’t good enough to stop us. 4-1 to the visitors.