Against Chelsea, FC Barcelona’s team basically picks itself apart from one spot. In this crucial UEFA Champions League first leg, Barça will almost certainly go with Marc André Ter Stegen in goal, a back four of Jordi Alba, Samuel Umtiti, Gerard Piqué, and Sergi Roberto, a front pairing of Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi, and Ivan Rakitić, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, plus one more player in midfield.
The identity of that last player is the big question mark for Ernesto Valverde, and, with Nélson Semedo suspended and Philippe Coutinho ineligible, he has four realistic options: Paulinho, André Gomes, Ousmane Dembélé and Aleix Vidal.
Paulinho offers the sort of toughness needed to compete with Chelsea, plus the forward movement to perhaps score against a low block. He’s not the greatest in possession, but Chelsea may not press him as much, which would alleviate the problem. He’s cooled off from when he used to score every week, perhaps due to tiredness, but he’s been given less minutes lately, so maybe he’ll be back to his best.
Gomes had an absolutely rank performance the last time he started a big match, as he was hauled off after halftime against Valencia in the Copa del Rey. What he offers is a fresh pair of legs to defend the right flank. He might be more fresh than Paulinho, who played in China when the European-based players were taking a break. Gomes, by contrast, has barely featured lately and should be ready to go. His run of form earlier in the year would have given him a stronger argument to start, but the fact that he flubbed that last match against Valencia gives one pause.
Had the Frenchman not gotten injured or sick this season, for sure he’d be starting. As it is, he lacks rhythm and understanding with his teammates. He’s fast, two-footed, and able to play killer balls. He’d be a huge boost to Barça, but perhaps not in his current state. He looked lost in his cameo appearance against Getafe, even though he did sparkle a little. He might be a better candidate for a substitute appearance.
Valverde went to Vidal in the second leg against Espanyol in the Copa del Rey, and he responded very well. Then he went to Vidal against Valencia, in the first leg, and he did all right. Perhaps Valverde will go to him again this time. He has pace to spare and can help patrol the flank. In attack he’s hot and cold, but then again, he won’t be the primary playmaker with Iniesta, Messi, Rakitić, and Suárez on the pitch. While he certainly has the pace to cope with the match, is he physically strong enough and good in the air to defend against Chelsea?
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