Barcelona will finish their group stage participation in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday night, as the Blaugrana welcome Borussia Mönchengladbach to Camp Nou and basically go through the formality of playing.
On paper, this game doesn't matter. All four positions on the group have been decided, Barça will top the standings regardless of any result, and there's very little reason to be excited or interested in this one. But in reality, this is a big game. One win in five (with four draws) and a tough El Clásico result have put the Catalan giants in a position of doubt: is this really the best team in the world? Is this really the strongest squad in Europe? Is Luis Enrique really a good coach?
Truth be told, it is hard to give positive questions to any of those questions. This has been a season where the level of performances has been disappointing at best, some key players from previous seasons are below their usual standards, and Luis Enrique just seems unable to find a real tactical solution other than "big stars, make things happen, please!", and that's a problem.
The second half of El Clásico was a refreshing sign: Barça played well, with and without the ball, and if it wasn't for Sergio Ramos, we would be very encouraged by what we saw at the weekend. That is something to build upon, and three points against Gladbach combined with a strong performance can bring back some confidence and begin to provide some positive answers to the giant cloud of doubt over Camp Nou.
This game doesn't matter? Think again.
Neymar and Ivan Rakitic are suspended, Jérémy Mathieu is injured, and Gerard Piqué has a small problem that might keep him out of the game. Those are the problems Luis Enrique has for this match, but it's very hard to see him going with his strongest possible lineup anyway.
In goal, Jasper Cillessen is likely to start as Marc-André ter Stegen gets a rest, and if Piqué goes only to the bench, Samuel Umtiti will partner Javier Mascherano in the middle of defense, with Sergi Roberto and Lucas Digne out wide.
The midfield is interesting, because while you wouldn't play Andrés Iniesta in a game like this, he needs to build up his fitness again after missing two months, so expect him to start and maybe play 60-70 minutes after a marvelous performance in the Clásico. André Gomes seems to be ahead of Rakitic in the pecking order, and with the Croatian suspended, he'll start here. Sergio Busquets may go to the bench for this one, with Denis Suárez in his place. Arda Turan will replace Neymar on the left side, and given the Turk's natural defensive instincts, we will maybe see a four-man midfield.
Up front, Lionel Messi will always play, and Paco Alcácer may finally score his first Barça goal. Luis Suárez worked his butt off on Saturday, so he might start on the bench and play the second half if Alcácer scores or has a really bad game and needs to come off.
Coach André Schubert will not have the luxury to rotate, because with so many players injured and captain Lars Stindl suspended, he'll be forced to start a very strong team, even though he doesn't want to. Borussia aren't in good form, even worse than Barça, and they want to get a result at Camp Nou to get some good news in a tough start to the season.
FORM GUIDE (most recent first)
Barcelona (4-2-3-1): Cillessen; Roberto, Mascherano, Umtiti, Digne; Gomes, Iniesta; Rafinha, Messi, Arda; Alcácer
Gladbach (3-4-1-2): Sommer; Elvedi, Christensen, Strobl; Korb, Kramer, Dahoud, Wendt; Hazard; Hahn, Raffael
This game could either be really boring or really fun with Barça engaged and looking to win. I'll be optimistic and go with the second option. 3-0 home team.