Barcelona completes the first round of group stage fixtures in the Champions League with a home matchup against Greek champions Olympiacos. This meeting will be particularly meaningful for Ernesto Valverde, who managed the Greek club for three season across two stints between 2008 and 2013. After winning against Juventus and Sporting on the first two European match days, a win against Olympiacos would put Barcelona in a great position heading into the reverse fixtures during the next two months.
Olympiacos has started the season very poorly for a team that has won 19 of the last 21 Greek Super League titles. They sit sixth in the domestic table having lost two of their last three games in the league and three of their last four overall. Sporting traveled to Greece and took all three points in their group stage opener while Juventus beat Olympiacos 2-0 in Turin last match day.
The Greek side did manage to frighten Juve just a tad with their pace up front, as Emmanuel Emenike, Seba and Felipe Pardo powered a quick, but not particularly effective, counter attack. No doubt Olympiacos manager Panagiotis Lemonis will have a similar game plan at the Nou Camp, and Barcelona will have to be mindful of the speed they have if they are given a chance to break. Greek midfielder Konstantinos Fortounis is Olympiacos’ creative force and Barcelona’s midfield will have to prevent him from having the space to provide service for his forwards to run on to.
Tactically, Olympiacos is unlikely to repeat the incredibly risky defensive strategy that doomed them at home against Sporting. The Greeks played a suicidally high line, allowing Sporting to break in behind for one-on-ones with the keeper time and time again in the first half. A more conservative and sensible setup for the Greeks should be expected at the Nou Camp while they wait anxiously for a Barcelona mistake to pounce on in transition.
Starters: Marc Andre ter Stegen, Nelson Semedo, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Deulofeu, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez
Bench: Jasper Cillessen, Denis Suarez, Javier Mascherano, Paulinho, Paco Alcacer, Sergi Roberto, Andre Gomes
Not much changes from Barcelona’s 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid on Saturday. Jordi Alba has been forced out of the side after pulling a muscle in training on Tuesday, so Lucas Digne comes into the starting XI to play alongside his compatriot Samuel Umtiti, who was my Man of the Match against Atleti. Despite what I thought was a solid performance in his first start of the season, Andre Gomes returns to the bench in favor of a natural winger in Gerard Deulofeu, who hasn’t started since the 6-1 victory against Eibar almost a month ago but looked solid off the bench against Atletico.
The midfield didn’t look particularly strong against Atletico, but I’m hoping a few extra days of rest will give Andres Iniesta a bit more juice as he continues to recover from his hamstring injury. Ivan Rakitic was rather anonymous on Saturday, and I wouldn’t be totally surprised if Paulinho or even Gomes was given the chance to start in a Champions League match. If it were my choice, I might even slid Denis Suarez into the lineup to get a look at how the midfield functions with two attack-minded options flanking Busquets. That said, Valverde has been conservative with most of his team selections this season, so not taking a risk until the top spot in the group is locked up would be more in line with his thinking.
This is the kind of game where it would be really nice to get Luis Suarez into something resembling good form. He looked good in his two games with Uruguay during the international break but despite scoring the point-saving goal in Madrid on Saturday, the bad still far outweighs the good as far as his club performances go. Similarly, while Olympiacos is a solid side for a fourth-place team in the group, this is the kind of game Lionel Messi can rack up a few goals to add to his career tally in the Champions League, which is forever a talking point considering who tops the charts alongside him.
Truthfully, anything resembling a rhythmic and flowing performance would be welcomed regardless of the final score. Barcelona has made a habit out of picking up points in uninspiring fashion in recent weeks, and while it is tough to complain about being top in La Liga and in your Champions League group, having some pretty pictures to go alongside the encouraging math would be icing on the cake.
Barcelona’s stars, and Lionel Messi in particular, return from a decisive international break and look to get back into winning ways during one of the tougher portions of this season’s schedule. Away to Atletico Madrid represents the second most difficult league fixture on the schedule, and Barcelona’s first trip to the Wanda Metropolitano could threaten the Blaugrana’s perfect start to the season.
Despite sitting a point above Real Madrid in the La Liga table, Atletico Madrid hasn’t had a robust start to the season. They were two late goals away from losing their opener at Girona, were held scoreless against Valencia and Leganes and have been underwhelming in the Champions League. An away point against Roma isn’t the worst result, but losing at home to Chelsea puts their ticket to the knockout round in slight jeopardy if Roma plays their cards right.
Antoine Griezmann’s red card in the season opener, which earned him a two-game ban, didn’t help Atleti get out to a strong start and the club’s transfer ban has delayed Diego Costa’s arrival until January, but otherwise this is virtually the same team Diego Simeone had at his disposal last season. And as long as Simeone is in charge, Atletico will have the same structure, character and style as usual.
Barcelona can expect a typical cagey affair on Saturday, but they did have success at the Calderon last season, winning 2-1 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal and 2-1 again in league play. The Blaugrana attack has been struggling to create chances of late, however, with Ousmane Dembélé out of action and Luis Suarez out of form. Lionel Messi has basically been his team’s only form of attack for club and for country, and he will need more help than he has been getting if Barcelona is to pick up all three points.
Starting XI: Marc Andre ter Stegen, Nelson Semedo, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, Gerard Deulofeu, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez
Subs: Jasper Cillessen, Denis Suarez, Iniesta, Javier Mascherano, Paulinho, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes
Up front I think Gerard Deulofeu should make his return from the doghouse and start alongside Messi and Suarez, who both are coming off of fantastic performances that helped get their national teams into the World Cup. Denis Suarez could also start in the forward line, but I think Ernesto Valverde has to give Deulofeu chances in games like this to see if he will be worth playing once Dembélé returns.
Andres Iniesta missed the international break with a hamstring injury that he suffered against Las Palmas, and though he has been cleared to play, I would keep him on the bench in this game as a precaution. Sergi Roberto’s industry and ability to push play forward make him a good fit to play against Atletico, and I give him the edge over Paulinho in that department after the latter had an active international break.
Rakitic and Busquets are fit and should be in the lineup for a game of this magnitude. Depending on the flow of the game, inserting Denis Suarez or Andre Gomes to provide a more attacking element makes sense, but I think bringing Paulinho on past the hour mark to help Barcelona see the game out (should they have the lead) is the most likely substitution in the middle of the park.
No surprises in the backline or in net. It wouldn’t be out of character for Valverde to start Roberto at right back and leave Semedo out of the lineup (in fact, I almost half expect that), but I think Semedo has to start getting the nod in big road games so he can continue to gain confidence and experience with the rest of the first-choice backline.
Prediction: Barcelona, 2-1.
Though this is a site that covers the sporting club FC Barcelona, I have a moral obligation to begin by harshly condemning the unspeakable and unjust acts committed by the Spanish government today as Catalonia exercised their democratic right to vote for independence. The images and videos from the gorgeous city of Barcelona today are gruesome and unacceptable, and I hope the patriots who stood up for what they believed in today did not do so in vain.
As far as this game being played; though it was controversial, I respect the decision for the game to be played solely if it was the unanimous choice of the 18 players in the locker room.
Now, the player grades from a match that now seems largely irrelevant in the grand scheme.
Barcelona looks to continue their perfect start to the season with a second straight victory in the Champions League. The Blaugrana kicked off the group stage with a huge 3-0 victory against Juventus and now travel to Lisbon to take on another undefeated side in their penultimate fixture before the October international break.
Sporting was very poor in the Champions League last season. Although nobody would have expected them to get out of the group stage ahead of Borussia Dortmund or Real Madrid, finishing behind Legia Warsaw and missing out on the Europa League knockout rounds was a huge surprise and disappointment.
Sporting’s success is due in large part to the fantastic business the club did this summer. The club made €50 million in sales, mainly from Adrien Silva’s €24.5 million move to Leicester and Ruben Semedo’s €14 million transfer to Villarreal, and reinvested most of it.
Signing promising Argentine attacker Marcos Acuna and Portugal U-21 star Bruno Fernandes on cut rate deals below €10 million was incredibly shrewd, picking up veteran defenders in Fabio Coentrao and Jeremy Mathieu from Barça and Madrid has given the team an experienced back line and their loan deal for pacey striker Seydou Doumbia gives them a contrasting option to target man Bas Dost.
Perhaps more important than any signing they could have made, Sporting held on to two of their homegrown stars in Gelson Martins and William Carvalho despite strong interest from Premier League clubs with deep pockets.
Carvalho is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, and if he was just a year or two younger, he might fit the timeline as a potential Sergio Busquets replacement in a few years. Even still, I think he is a top class player who will give Barcelona’s midfield a run for its money in the middle of the park. He is smooth and careful on the ball and does a great job breaking up play, and with a creative outlet like Fernandes playing alongside him, Sporting has a fantastic midfield unit that helps their team transition into attack.
Up front is where Martins stars. Martins is insanely quick and incredibly tricky with the ball, and Jordi Alba will have to be cautious with his forays forward with the threat Martins possesses on the break. Acuna has been a threat on the other side as well, so Sporting possesses a solid attack from every angle. Sporting is a team that is used to playing with the ball (they average the second most possession in Liga NOS) but against Olympiacos they did their damage on the break.
Sporting look a more well-rounded team than the one that flamed out of this competition last season. Their talented midfield will force Barcelona into a game of tug-of-war in the middle of the park, and they have dangerous attacking options who can make Barcelona pay in transition if the Blaugrana get too offensive. And though they finished last, they conceded the fewest goals in their group last season, which is no small accomplishment against Dortmund and Real. Barcelona has a tough task ahead of them if they want to continue their winning streak, and that is exactly what this competition is all about.
This is basically Barcelona’s best XI at this point in the season, with the only debatable point being what player and what configuration is best for replacing Ousmane Dembélé. Although I would love for Denis Suarez to start this game, after being left out of the squad against Girona, I think Gerard Deulofeu will have gotten the hint and should be primed for a big performance. Other than that, Ernesto Valverde is likely to put his strongest team on the field.
If he does, it will be the first time Nelson Semedo has started away from home for Barcelona, and it would be fitting to see the Benfica product starting against Sporting. Semedo’s absence has been felt in Barcelona’s road fixtures this season, particularly going forward, as the Blaugrana’s attack always seems more dynamic when Semedo is in the lineup. Keeping Javier Mascherano out of the team after his MOTM performance against Girona is a tough call, but I am guessing Valverde is not yet ready to diagnose Gerard Pique’s early-season struggles anything more than that.
In midfield, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets should be relatively fresh after some slight rotation that saw each player spend an hour or so on the bench in a recent game (home against Eibar for Rakitic, away to Girona for Busquets). Andres Iniesta starting his ninth consecutive game between club and country is the concern here, but if Valverde didn’t rest him against Eibar or Girona, I can’t see him leaving him out in a game where Barcelona will actually need their best players to play to their potential.
In some ways, it is to Ernesto Valverde’s credit that I came away from Barcelona’s 3-0 victory against Girona disappointed in the team. During Luis Enrique’s regime, Barcelona had a tendency to lose games when the team put in an underwhelming performance. Thus far, Valverde so far has been able to secure points on the road when the team is far from their top gear; the first example was Barcelona’s 2-1 comeback victory at Getafe, and their triumph at Girona followed a similar script.
When you are picking at the displeasing elements of a result, it is always more comforting when that result is a win. So even though Barcelona played one of their more disjointed and bland games in recent memory against their Catalan neighbors, the complaints refer to the aesthetics and the process, not the final score. The aesthetics matter too, of course, especially atBarça, and you can count on one hand the amount of fluid and dangerous attacks Barcelona had on Saturday night.
But of premium importance in the process, and Barcelona’s route to three points at Girona – which included two own goals – was not a path I would want Barcelona to explore any more this season. Credit to Girona boss Pablo Machín, who devised a smart gameplan that threw Barcelona off. Girona’s high line deterred Barcelona’s possession game and Pablo Maffeo’s excellent man-marking on Lionel Messi limited the Blaugrana’s creative outlet. There were gaps and channels to exploit that might have led to six or seven goals on a different day, but Barcelona’s timing on passes and runs was off, and the overall effort of the team was missing a spark.
The final scoreline flatters Barcelona in more ways than one. Their first goal was a complete fluke, and though Aleix Vidal’s lovely backheel flick that nutmegged the defender could have very easily gone in off of Luis Suarez, the ball was rolling to nobody if the keeper didn’t intervene to put it in his own net. Suarez’s goal to make it 3-0 was solid, but with the high line Girona was playing with, Barcelona could have easily scored that goal a few times in this match with a bit better timing on the runs from the forwards and a bit better passing from the midfielders (it was telling that Sergi Roberto was the only one to make that killer line-busting pass and he did so from right back).
The two own goals changed Barcelona’s ambitions in the second half. When they didn’t need to risk going forward to score another goal, they didn’t, and for me that is a fine decision from the manager at this point in the season as he tries to get as many points in the bag as possible before the business end of the cup competitions begins in 2018. That said, a slow start and a lack of chances from open play is not something unique to the Girona fixture, either. Barcelona has started slowly in a few games this season – in all three away matches, really, against Alaves, Getafe and now Girona – and have really only had segments of the game in which they went and got the result rather than ever having a prolonged spell of clinical football.
Again, that we can sit back and rate the beauty of a victory is a positive in and of itself. Barcelona was mostly fine against the top of the table in La Liga last season, it was the odd fixture away to teams like Alaves or Getafe that cost them a point or two and as a result the title. If Valverde and his team can manufacture enough of these kinds of wins to reclaim the La Liga crown, nobody will complain.
Developing poor habits or not bringing enough intensity to start a game and expecting to be able to get away with it somehow, though, is extremely dangerous. If Barcelona doesn’t correct the issues that have led to the droughts against Getafe, Girona and Alaves, then perhaps they will pop up against competition more capable of punishing Barça in the league or in Europe.
Chief among those habits is relying on Marc Andre ter Stegen to bail the team out. Ter Stegen making one or two world class one-on-one saves has become a trend early in games, and if he weren’t playing so well at the moment then a few of Barcelona’s games this season could have turned out very differently. Far too often it is the opposition that starts out on the front foot while Barcelona takes a half hour or so to generate any kind of fluidity or penetration from their possession.
The result was a positive one for Barcelona, but the performance was not. And in a funny way, this says something complementary of Valverde’s reign. That the team is still able to grind out results while the manager continues to work out the kinks with his selection and tactics is crucial.
It’s also worth nothing that Valverde isn’t the only one responsible for Barcelona’s patchy play – far from it. His most creative player behind Messi was injured in his first league start, Suarez is in the worst form of his Barcelona career, and whether Gerard Deulofeu is a Barcelona-level player is still up in the air. The only two things Valverde is solely responsible for is overusing Iniesta (at least in my opinion) and not starting Semedo in road games, where his pace and creativity on the flank have been missed. Outside of that, player form and player availability have just as much to do with Barcelona’s inconsistency as the manager’s tactics.
That said, with an important month of fixtures coming up, I hope the time when Valverde has Barcelona playing fluent and flawless football comes sooner rather than later.