Barça begin the 2014/15 Champions League with what appears to be a relatively easy game against the Cypriot team Apoel at Camp Nou. Luis Enrique will not name the squad list until after tomorrow morning’s training session but he has called up Sergi Samper, along with Munir El-Haddadi and Sandro Ramírez, from Barça B to train with the first team this week. Dani Alves has recovered from his knee problem but Thomas Vermaelen has still not received medical clearance yet. Barça will be looking for a comfortable victory to start this season’s tournament which will reach its climax with the final in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on June 6.
Few people give Apoel much chance after being drawn with Barça, Paris SG and Ajax in Group F this season but on their last appearance in the Champions League in 2011/12 the Cypriot team surprised everybody by finishing top of a group including Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit. They then beat Olympique Lyon on penalties in the last 16 before going down 8-2 on aggregate to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals. Apoel also managed draws away at Chelsea and Atlético Madrid on their other Champions League appearance in 2009/10 though they ended up bottom of their group.
All this suggests Apoel could cause another upset. The team from Nicosia are current champions of the league and cup in Cyprus but how will they fare against Barça? Last season they didn’t get past the Champions League qualify rounds, losing on away goals to the Slovenian team Maribor. This season they have reached the group stage, and in qualifying they beat the Finnish team Helsinki 4-2 on aggregate (2-2 away and 2-0 at home) while Barça beat the same side 6-0 in a preseason friendly in Helsinki in August.
Apoel’s current team is made up largely of Brazilians and Portuguese though their goals usually come from the Irishman Cillian Sheridan or the Argentinian Tomas De Vincenti while Algerian striker Rafik Djebbour has recently joined. In goal they have Urko Pardo who played 18 games for Barça B between 2004 and 2007 while the biggest name in their squad is John Arne Riise who won the Champions League with Liverpool back in 2005. The 33-year-old Riise signed for the Cypriots on the final day of this summer’s transfer window and has yet to make an appearance. The only other player of much note is the Portuguese midfielder Tiago Gomes who knows what it’s like to win at Camp Nou having played 74 minutes in Hercules’s surprising 0-2 victory at the start of the 2010/11 season.
The big question for Luis Enrique tomorrow is whether to make changes to the team considering the heavy fixture list over the next 19 days. The importance of the Champions League means a victory is essential though the Barça coach may decide to give a chance to players who haven’t featured much so far. Marc Andre Ter Stegen could be given a chance in goal though it remains to be seen if Luis Enrique plans a system of rotation for his goalkeepers and whether one of Bravo and Ter Stegen will emerge as the coach’s clear favourite. There could be changes at full back with both Adriano and Douglas waiting for their first chance and both Gerard Piqué and Marc Bartra will be hoping for some minutes after seeing Mascherano and Mathieu gain an initial advantage for the centre-back positions.
Mascherano could instead be used in midfield to give Sergio Busquets a break though there could also be a chance for the talented 19-year-old Samper who has been continuing to improve with an excellent start to the season with Barça B. Rakitic and Iniesta could also be rested which would open an opportunity for Xavi, Sergi Roberto and, possibly, Rafinha, though the younger of the Alcántara brothers could also be used in attack. Another important question is to see whether or not Luis Enrique intends to play Messi at every opportunity. The Argentinian, on 67 Champions League goals, will be hungry for more as he competes with Cristiano Ronaldo, on 68, to be the first to surpass the 71 scored by Raul in the competition.
I imagine Luis Enrique will make fewer overall changes than the majority of fans might, but that’s understandable when he will be the one to face the criticism if Barça fail to take three points. The general sensation so far this season is very positive, especially in attitude, work-rate and defensive organisation. There are good signs going forward too though perhaps a certain level of unfamiliarity between players combined with a touch of bad luck means the team have only scored six goals in the three opening league games. We had to wait until late goals by substitutes to beat Villarreal and Athletic but given the intensity shown by Lucho’s team there is a feeling that if they get an early goal then somebody, which could easily be Apoel tomorrow, will be in for a hiding.
The Barça coach has changed the normal routine for the Champions League by not concentrating the squad in a hotel tonight. The players will attend training in the morning before returning home to have lunch and then the players that have been named in the squad will report to Camp Nou 90 minutes before the game.
Barça players available: Bravo, Ter Stegen, Alves, Montoya, Douglas, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Mathieu, Alba, Adriano, Busquets, Sergi Samper, Xavi, Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Rafinha, Pedro, Munir, Messi, Sandro, Neymar.
Out: Masip, Vermaelen, Luis Suarez.
Barça: Ter Stegen; Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Alba; Xavi, Mascherano, Sergi Roberto; Rafinha, Messi, Neymar.
Apoel: Urko; Mario Sergio, Joao Guilherme, Carlao, Antoniades; Tiago Gomes, Nuno Morais, Vinicius, Manduca; De Vincenti, Sheridan.
Prediction: Barça 5 Apoel 0.
Date: Wednesday 17 September 2014. Kick-off 8.45 pm local time.