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.