Barca to go back to Plan A. Alas, that means Messi and Neymar
LUIS ENRIQUE, the Barcelona manager, will bring back his superstars against Celtic after controversially resting them at the weekend.
Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta all came off the substitutes’ bench in the 2-1 home defeat to Alaves, first-choice left-back Jordi Alba was unused, while Gerard Pique was rested from the squad altogether.
All five should start against Brendan Rodgers’s men who arrive in Spain this morning knowing the pressure is to some extent off them given who they are playing, where they are playing and with the insurance of a 5-1 win over Rangers behind them.
Messi has struggled with his hamstring and missed a good chance to equalise at the weekend; however, he will be brought back into the team to ensure the Catalans do not go two matches without a win, which in their world would be seen as a genuine crisis.
Explaining his changes for the Alaves match, Enrique said: “We tried to include those who were fresher, most of the rotations were due to the circumstances surrounding us. The players tried and gave it their best.
“It was not a good night for us from the beginning. We lacked fluency and precision and we were fragile in defence. Our mistake led to the second goal. It’s not a warning for us. We are always the favourites but we appreciate how difficult it is to win.
“Did we make too many changes? We have not had an established team this season. I take responsibility. People always talk about the coach but we are all in it together. It’s not just the 11 players. They all tried hard but it’s a game that we can learn a lot from.”
The chat around Barcelona is that Enrique is on borrowed time, despite winning the league and cup double last season which came on the back of his first campaign as manager when his side picked up a historic treble which included the Champions League.
“Ill-advised” is how leading Spanish sports newspaper Marca described the decision to make seven changes, none of which seemed to work. Indeed Alaves deserved their win and took both goals really well.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat, there was a lot of negativity among the Barcelona press pack, and certainly the supporters, who have not been convinced by some of the new players, especially striker Paco Alcacer, a £25m summer signing from Valencia, who hardly got a kick before he was taken off at the weekend.
Jordi Mestre, the Barcelona vice-president, made the point after Saturday’s match that Neymar, who played the full 90 minutes and showed some flashes of what he is capable of, needed some help from his team-mates.
“Neymar is fine and in form,” he said. “Yet Neymar alone cannot win the match. [The rotations] were those which the coaching staff considered necessary with regards to injuries and the state in which players came into the match. They put out the team they considered the best.”
The notion that Barcelona are in trouble is ridiculous; however, it is not fanciful to suggest that questions are being asked about the strength of their squad. The blame for them not defending their Champions League title last season was laid at the door of the difference in quality between the starting XI, which hardly changed, and those who were asked to come in when the team was tinkered with.
Going by Saturday’s performance, the gulf between the supporting cast to the world’s best is considerable.
“Looking good in a side that’s dominating other teams is one thing, shining bright when your backs are against the wall another,” said Marca. “Players must put in a shift no matter the perceived standard of the opponent because if and when they don’t the retribution is swift, as we saw on Saturday.
“Luis Enrique, too, would do well to give results and team selection against a similar type of opponent more than cursory acknowledgement. Large-scale rotations for rotations sake has never really worked for the Catalans and it didn’t once again. Lesson learned hopefully.”
In many ways Alaves showed Rodgers how his team should play tomorrow. They were well organised, worked hard, got men behind the ball to stop Barcelona playing through the middle of them and broke on the counter-attack with pace and precision.
Celtic will hope, and it’s a big hope, that Barcelona even with their most famous players back will put in another below-par performance.
Enrique admitted: “We were not precise in what we did, but this allows us to value what we have done previously. To win is always difficult. We have always been conscious of how tough it is to win, but this helps us to understand how difficult it is.
“Alaves were very serious, very well organised and practically with just three chances scored two goals. They did things very well. Also, they played with a system they had not used before, a very deep 5-4-1.”
First-choice goalkeeper Marc Andre Ter Stegen has will miss the next few weeks with a hamstring injury and therefore new signing from Ajax, Jasper Cillissen, who made his debut against Alaves, will make his Champions League bow for Barcelona tomorrow.
The Dutch international said: “I am ready to play against Celtic. I came to Barcelona to help the team and if I am able to do that on Tuesday it would be great. I feel comfortable here, I feel ready to play for this big club and help them win more trophies.
“Some people questioned why I came here [to sit on the bench] but I always want to play and the best games are in the Champions League. We will try to improve for Tuesday against Celtic.”
STEP THIS WAY, CELTIC: Lionel Messi and Neymar are expected to start against Brendan Rodgers’s side in Camp Nou tomorrow night after they were rested against Alaves.