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.