FC Barcelona will be looking to rebound from the first defeat of their season tomorrow, when they begin their UEFA Champions League campaign against Celtic FC at the Camp Nou. The Blaugrana slumped to a shock defeat in their last fixture on Saturday, when newly-promoted Deportivo Alaves upset the odds to claim a deserved 2-1 victory. While one defeat does not equal a crisis, a second successive loss would certainly raise some question marks – so the pressure is on Luis Enrique and his squad to bounce back and deliver a result.
Fortunately, even within the confines of this young campaign, Barcelona already have precedent for securing a good result against Celtic; of course the two sides met in Dublin in the International Champions Cup, with the Blaugrana emerging comfortable 3-1 winners on the day. At that stage of preseason, Celtic were further into their preparations and put out a team that was much closer to their starting line-up than their opponents – so should Enrique have any reason to be afraid tomorrow?
Yes, Celtic will approach tomorrow’s match differently – and they will play with more intensity than they did on that sunny evening in Ireland, but overall, it’s tough to see how they bridge such an obvious gulf in class.
Alaves were successful on Saturday for a variety of reasons, a perfect storm if you will, but one of the key reasons for their success was their unflinching desire to do all it takes to secure a result. They entered the Camp Nou perfectly clear about where they stand in the echelons of Spanish football – at the bottom – and they played like it. I don’t mean this in a negative way, quite the opposite, they embraced their status and played up to it.
Pellegrino came up with a near-flawless gameplan to field a compact backline comprised of no fewer than five defenders, and he packed the midfield with another narrow bank of four. The end result was a highly congested field of play – and Barcelona could neither find a way through, nor could they take advantage by utilising the two wings that Alaves had conceded. To use an inelegant phrase, Alaves parked the bus, and Pellegrino’s approach was ultimately vindicated.
If Alaves approach that game and end up playing a relatively standard 4-2-3-1, you can rest assured that they probably would have lost. If Alaves had positioned their full-backs closer to the two flanks in more orthodox positions, they probably would have lost – if they hadn’t dropped so deep in midfield to restrict the space between the lines, well, you don’t need me to say it again.
This isn’t meant to be an inquisition into why Barcelona lost that match of football, as Renato pointed out in his post-match editorial, the simplest reason is that shit happens, especially across a 38 game season – but all this does go to show why Celtic are less likely to replicate that result.
In general, Celtic are a proud team with a rich history. They hired a relatively expansive manager, style-wise, with the intention of playing their way to the Scottish title, and perhaps out of the UEFA Champions League group stage. The latter goal was always going to be ambitious and perhaps out of their reach, but those were the intentions – and put simply, that approach is not conducive to beating Barcelona at the Camp Nou, at least when you boast the quality, or lack thereof, that is comprised in the Celtic squad.
Rodgers is capable of galvanising a team, and he might get Celtic playing better than they have in quite some time, but is he capable of instilling the discipline and focus they need to threaten the Blaugrana? Is he willing to admit and embrace his side’s inferiority and set-up his team as submissively as Pellegrino was ready to do on Saturday, simply to stand a better chance of walking away with a positive result?
Maybe Rodgers will prove me wrong, and certainly the Celtic players enter the match full of confidence after their derby victory over Rangers, but at this stage in the pre-match build-up, all I see is a wounded animal out for revenge, and a naïve foe, unprepared to do what it takes to stop the storm that’s coming its way.
Undoubtedly, the worst reaction to Saturday’s defeat would be to lose faith. This applies to both the squad, and the methods utilised by Luis Enrique. There is absolutely no reason to rationally believe that the defeat spells doom for the rest of the season, that players like Denis Suarez and Paco Alcacer are not worthy of a place in the Barça line-up, nor does it prove that Luis Enrique’s rotation plan was a failure.
All the defeat proved was that on the night, Alaves were the team with a better gameplan. There is an argument that Enrique rotated too much, and it’s one that might have some credibility – but consider the international break, and how that, above anything else, is what likely disrupted Barça’s rhythm. Of course we looked out of sorts on Saturday, but wouldn’t any squad have looked a little off after travelling so far with their respective countries?
The best reaction is perhaps to just move on; focus on the next game and on securing a result. That’s what Luis Enrique will have been preaching to his players over the past couple of days and they will be raring to get out there and put the Alaves defeat behind them.
Marc-André ter Stegen announced himself fit via Twitter today, as the German looks set to recover ahead of schedule and return to his usual position between the sticks. Jasper Cillessen deputised in ter Stegen’s absence at the weekend, and while he was of course on the losing side, the Dutch international impressed me with the seamless manner in which he slotted into the team.
He was confident on the ball, quick off his line and those are the type of attributes that could see him share a little more game-time with MAtS, even if the former Monchengladbach keeper wins out tomorrow.
In defense, Saturday’s defeat perhaps taught us the importance of Gerard Piqué, as Javier Mascherano struggled to fill his shoes playing on the opposite side of defense. Back in his usual slot on the left-hand side of the central defensive pairing, Mascherano is likely to return to form – and I would give him the nod tomorrow. Sergi Roberto clearly wins out at right-back over the struggling Aleix Vidal, and Jordi Alba will simply rotate back into the line-up in place of Lucas Digne.
The midfield is likely to select itself; Sergio Busquets will start at pivote and the chances are that he is reunited with his two favourite partners in crime, Ivan Rakitić and Andrés Iniesta, as our club captain made his welcome return from injury off the bench on Saturday. If you’re looking for a prediction out of left-field, don’t be surprised if Rafinha Alcântara gets the nod in place of either Rakitić or Iniesta.
In attack, there’s a strong chance that tomorrow will see the season debut of the fabled MSN triumvirate – while they reunited on Saturday, I’m not counting it off the bench. However, I suspect that Neymar may be dropped to the bench – not for a poor performance on Saturday, but rather to continue giving Arda Turan some game-time, and more importantly, giving him time in his best position on the left-wing.
As Barcelona well know, securing a huge win over your biggest rival tends to kick-start a season, and therefore there’s every reason for Celtic fans to feel optimistic headed into tomorrow’s match. They decimated their eternal rivals, Rangers, 5-1 at the weekend in the first league Old Firm encounter in quite some time – and it’s unlikely that Rodgers will make too many changes from that side.
Moussa Dembele scored a hat-trick in the win, and as such he is certain to lead the line, while captain Scott Brown has travelled, which means the knock he sustained in that thrashing doesn’t seem to be too severe.
FC Barcelona 6-1 Celtic FC – 11th December 2013 – UEFA Champions League
The last time these two sides met in competitive action, Barça emerged victorious in a blowout, as a 14 minute hat-trick from Neymar put the visitors to the sword. Goals from Gerard Piqué, Pedro and Cristian Tello rounded off the scoring for Gerardo Martino’s side.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Rafinha; Messi, Suarez, Arda
Celtic (4-2-3-1): de Vries; Lustig, Toure, Sviatchenko, Tierney; Brown, Bitton; Sinclair, Rogic, Forrest; Dembele
Celtic do not travel well in this competition, just ask Lincoln Red Imps. Or Astana. Or Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Barcelona will confirm this tomorrow with a rout – a Manita