Before the start of the annual Joan Gamper Trophy fixture, newly-appointed team captain Lionel Messi spoke to the crowd at the Camp Nou and made a promise the team “will do all we can” to bring the Champions League back to Barcelona.
While Barcelona have had tremendous recent success in La Liga and the Copa del Rey, there is no denying that the Champions League disappointments coupled with Real Madrid’s 3-peat have been a plague to their accomplishments. Their last three quarter-final knockout stage eliminations are upsetting not only because of the circumstances surrounding the losses but also because of the great potential that they had heading into the tournaments.
Heading into this year’s Champions League campaign, Barcelona are looking to avenge their recent disappointments, but this time around the team will really be challenged as they will be featured in one of the toughest groups they have ever faced.
Barca have been drawn into Group B along with Tottenham, Inter Milan and PSV. Its doubtedly this year’s ‘Group of Death’ in the Champions League, Barcelona will face grueling competition in each game that will test the team in more ways than one.
Fixture dates: October 3rd (A) and December 11th (H)
Spurs qualified for the Champions League by finishing third in the Premier League last season, which was their third straight top four finish. While they did not improve at all during the summer transfer window with zero signings, Tottenham are still one of the most exciting teams to watch in the Premier League. If their performances against Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus from last year’s Champions League hold any indication as to how they will approach this year’s tournament, then Barca are in for a major test.
Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs have increased their level of play to new heights thanks to their playstyle. Tottenham do not have a set formation in which they play with in every single game but rather are inclined to select formations on a game-by-game basis. For instance, Pochettino could elect to play with a 4-3-1-2 formation where Christian Eriksen plays behind Harry Kane and Lucas Moura as the attacking midfielder. Pochettino could also select a 3-1-4-2 formation with Toby Alderweireld, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen playing as a back three.
Regardless of the formation, Tottenham will play with a quick-tempo system when in possession with an emphasis on moving the ball across the pitch. Defensively, Tottenham are not a pressing team but rather look to win the ball back with aggressive challenges and interceptions in the open field.
The one player to watch is Christian Eriksen. Under Pochettino, Eriksen has the responsibility of playing as an attacking midfielder, which supports the striker and forwards inside or out wide on the wing. Eriksen’s creativity as an attacking midfielder has had a substantial impact on Tottenham. Last season, he created 95 goalscoring chances in 37 Premier League games and so far, he has recorded 11 goalscoring chances in five games this season. His ability to weave in between the defensive lines and push the ball upfield with through balls in the attacking third is among his biggest strength as a midfielder. Eriksen is also capable of creating goalscoring chances from long distance as his long balls into the box have added a new dimension to the Spurs attack.
See here how Eriksen creates something out of nothing with a perfect slicing pass into the box to where only Dele Alli is able to reach it and score.
For a Barca midfield that has shown significant signs of stagnation throughout the early portions of the season, they can not afford to let Eriksen boss play in the middle of the pitch and control the tempo of the game. Alongside a midfield consisting of players such as Dele Alli, Heung-Min Son and Eric Dier, Tottenham’s speed on the counter and elusiveness to facilitate play upfield with multiple players could bring vital concerns for Barca’s midfield unit.
Fixture dates: October 24th (H) and November 6th (A)
The last time Inter Milan faced Barca in a European competition came in a game that Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets remember quite well. Under manager Jose Mourinho, Inter Milan defeated Barca in the semifinals of the 2009-2010 Champions League by a 3-2 aggregate scoreline. The semifinal tie was filled with thrilling action and controversy as well, which included a disallowed Bojan Krkic goal in the end.
Over eight years later, both teams will meet again but this time, it will come in the Champions League group stage.
Inter Milan are coming into this year’s Champions League as a dark horse contender to make a potential run into the knockout stage. Team officials were active in the summer as they added quite a bit of promising talents including young forwards Laturo Martinez and Keita Blade as well as defenders Stefan de Vrij and Sime Vrsaljko. Along with the promising core that they were able to keep, Inter will strive to make qualification to the knockout stage a top priority.
Now although they have had a slow start to the Serie A season under manager Luciano Spalletti, the team is in position to make quite a bit of noise in the Champions League group stage.
Inter Milan play in a variety of different formations under Spalletti. The one formation that he uses more often is the 4-2-3-1 that occupies two holding midfielders and a striker up front. Roberto Gagliardini and Marcelo Brozovic play as the holding midfielders with responsibilities to distribute the ball upfield and defend deep. Mauro Icardi is positioned as the striker that free roams inside the box and out wide, especially when Inter are orchestrating a counter-attack.
Under Spalletti, Inter is also capable of playing a 4-4-1-1 formation that is shaped similarly to a 4-4-2 but one of the strikers up front plays as a secondary striker. In this case, Lauturo Martinez or Keita Balde play as the secondary striker behind Icardi as they link up with the midfielders behind and are able to accelerate the ball upfield when in possession. In this formation, Inter defend with eight players but do not press as often as they should in order to win back the ball.
The one main player to watch is arguably Mauro Icardi. The Argentina international has emerged as one of the most prolific strikers in Europe and for good reason. Icardi has scored 25+ goals in all competitions in three of his last four seasons. As a poacher in the box, Icardi is capable of finishing in a variety of different ways, whether it is making a run into the box or receiving an aerial ball in scoring position.
As he did last season against Juventus, Icardi has proven to deliver in moments where it matters the most.
Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti will have the duty of containing Icardi in the box. Considering Inter Milan often play with just one striker in the 4-2-3-1 formation, manager Ernesto Valverde should look to implement a man-marking system for Icardi. Barca have shown glimpses of early season struggles in defending aerial balls and runners approaching the box. If Barca are able to diminish Icardi’s influence on the pitch and focus on winning the midfield battle, they will have a major advantage on both games that could be the difference maker in deciding the outcome.
Fixture dates: September 18th (H) and November 28th (A)
Typically, there is always a team in a Champions League group that many do not expect much from. Historically, this team is from outside Europe’s top five leagues, and they have an extremely difficult time advancing to the knockout stage.
With Group B, PSV are a team that would be characterized as the weak link under this criteria but they should not be overlooked at all. Mark van Bommel’s squad should not be underestimated as they could surprise Barca, Tottenham and Inter.
PSV went through the longer route of qualifying for the Champions League group stage as they defeated BATE Borisov by a 6-2 aggregate score in the playoff round.
So far in Van Bommel’s first season as manager, the team is off to an impressive start in the Eredivisie. PSV have won their opening five games of the season while outscoring opponents by a 21-3 scoreline.
Much of PSV’s success can be credited to the fast-paced attacking style implemented by Van Bommel. The team is structured in a 4-3-3 formation that heavily relies on the wingers to create goalscoring chances and dominate pace of play on the flanks. Hirving Lozano and Steven Bergwijn are the driving forces in PSV’s high-octane attack as their speed and ability to cut inside into the middle portions of the box have been integral in the team’s early season success.
Jordi Alba on the left and either Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo on the right must be cautious with how they defend Lozano and Bergwin as both players are capable of creating havoc on the flanks in counter-attacks.
See here how quickly PSV are able to advance the ball upfield on the counter-attack. Lozano is able to receive the ball out wide and in seconds, he is able to move into the box to deliver a pass inside that creates a threatening goalscoring chance.
The unsung hero of their early season success has been the Uruguayan international Gaston Pereiro. Under Van Bommel, Pereiro has been positioned as a midfielder in the middle rather than on the left or right. He plays higher up front as an attacking midfielder to get Lozano and Bergwijn involved from the flanks and also to supply striker Luuk de Jong with passes in the box.
From Barca’s perspective, Sergio Busquets will likely have the duty of containing and marking Pereiro in an effort to diminish his influence on the game.
As alluded to before, the one main player to watch is Mexican international Lozano. Throughout the summer transfer market, rumors were circulating that Barca scouts and officials had their eye on signing Lozano but ultimately elected for Malcolm instead. Lozano is still on Barca’s radar and for good reason. The 23-year-old has recorded 11 goals and nine assists for club and country in 2018.
As he showed with his goal against BATE in the Champions League playoff round, the dynamic winger can change the complexion of a game in seconds.
It will not be easy for Barca in the Champions League group stage this year. If they aspire to continue their streak of finishing first in the group, they will have to put in even more work than in previous years in order to succeed.