Luis Enrique took a risk tonight in his first Champions League game in charge of Barça, making nine changes to the team that beat Athletic on Saturday, but the gamble just paid off with Gerard Piqué scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Apoel Nicosia. The most notable of the new faces was 19-year-old Sergi Samper who made his first-team debut with a composed performance in the defensive midfield position.
Samper is the latest midfield product of La Masia and he fitted in immediately, showing the confidence on the ball of a veteran that was reminiscent of the young Pep Guardiola. Whether he was playing quick first time balls to the closest team-mate or spreading 30 yard passes to the wings Samper showed great accuracy which was reflected in his 93% success rate from a total of 102 passes.
The other notable change in team selection was Marc-Andre Ter Stegen who also made his debut in place of Claudio Bravo in goal. It remains to be seen whether Luis Enrique intends to alternate his keepers in different competitions though in his post-match press conference he indicated he wanted all three of his goalies to be ready at all times. Ter Stegen gave a solid performance despite having little to do, showing excellent distribution and alertness to come off his line. There was only one save to make and it came a minute into injury time at the end, with Camp Nou holding its breath the German keeper leapt quickly to his left to tip Manduca’s 20-yard drive over the bar right-handed.
Despite a creditable defensive performance from Apoel it would have been unjust if the Cypriot team had taken anything from this game. The visitors managed a couple of early bursts into the Barça half but they spent the vast majority of the game with ten players behind the ball in a flat 4-4-2 formation. Barça struggled throughout to penetrate with Sergi Roberto and a rusty Xavi failing to create much. Munir was given another chance in attack but despite working hard the youngster only had one weak header from Alves’s cross which caused Apoel keeper Urko Pardo little problem. It was left for Messi and Neymar to try to work their magic but the pair had little luck. The Argentinian was often seen drifting to the right wing but he was rarely seen in the area, managing only one first-half shot in open play after combining with Neymar but Pardo beat away the Argentinian’s 15-yard drive. Neymar had an earlier effort after cutting inside past two challenges but his shot went high and wide.
Barça’s best occasions in the first half came from free kicks. In the 11th minute Messi skipped past one challenge before being clattered just outside the box by Vinicius who was booked. Messi got up and curled the free kick round the wall but Pardo sprang low to his right to punch the ball away for a corner. Then in the 27th minute Antoniades received the second yellow card of the game for a late challenge on Alves. Messi swung in a cross from the right and Piqué got in front of his marker at the near post to head firmly down into the corner from six yards.
Despite going a goal behing Apoel changed nothing of their defensive formation. Barça lacked the passing speed to force openings which resulted in shots from Xavi, Sergi Roberto and Neymar getting blocked by the defence with the Brazilian Carlao particularly impressive. The Apoel number five showed great anticipation in cleaning up in the area though early in the second half he may have been guilty of leaning into Munir after a quick pass from Messi but the German referee Deniz Ayketin ignored Barça’s penalty appeal.
From here on the second half was very disappointing from Barça. Apoel continued to show great discipline in defence but Barça lacked the imagination and the punch up front to create many chances. With the slim one-goal difference the possibility that the visitors might sneak an equalizer began to creep in and this added to Barça’s caution. The first scare of an Apoel goal came in the 58th minute when Piqué’s headed clearance fell straight to Tomas De Vicenti but the Argentinian striker’s shot deflected off Marc Bartra for a corner.
Iniesta came on in place of Xavi and Barça improved slightly. Adriano had been seen little in attack but in the 66th minute Messi picked him out in the area but the full-backs shot lacked power and after a slight deflection Pardo saved easily. Soon after, Neymar sent a long ball out to Alves on the right and then ran in to meet the cross with a header that was going wide before Munir appeared in an offside position to head in. The goal was correctly ruled out and Luis Enrique took the moment to put on Sandro in place of Munir.
The clock ticked on, Barça retained the ball but the threat of an equalizer increased. In the 78th minute Manduca found De Vincenti but this time the striker miss-hit his shot wide. Rafinha replaced Sergi Roberto but there was very little threat on Pardo’s goal. It wasn’t until the 88th minute that Barça created another clean shooting chance when Samper fed Sandro 20 yards out but after turning the striker struck his low shot a yard past the post.
Barça’s best chance of adding to Piqué’s goal came as the clock passed the 90 minute mark. Neymar showed skill to get into the area but his shot was stopped by Pardo, Messi looked like the scoring as he tried to screw back the rebound but right-back Mario Sergio stretched to make a goal-line clearance. The game wasn’t over yet though, Apoel came up the other end, Djebbour found Manduca who let fly from 20 yards but Ter Stegen had his moment to save Barça’s blushes.
This was a disappointing game following the three encouraging performances in La Liga. However, the number of changes has to be taken into account as it is early days for the players to form good understandings. Luis Enrique’s team selection showed courage, and, even though it might have rebounded badly on him, the Barça coach won his first three Champions League points with stellar performances from his two debut boys Samper and Ter Stegen. Maybe it wasn’t the mauling some of us were hoping for but we cannot expect immediate brilliance from a new team. The most important thing to begin with is defensive solidness and so far we have four victories and four clean sheets. Lucho also managed to rest Busquets, Mascherano, Mathieu, Alba, Rakitic and Pedro who should all be raring to go for Sunday’s game at Levante in Round four of La Liga.
Barça: Ter Stegen 7; Alves 6.5, Piqué 7, Bartra 6.5, Adriano 6; Xavi 5.5 (Iniesta m60, 6.5), Samper 7.5, Sergi Roberto 5.5 (Rafinha m79, 6); Munir 6 (Sandro m68, 6), Messi 6, Neymar 6.5.
Apoel: Urko Pardo; Mario Sergio, Guilherme, Carlao, Antoniades; Tiago Gomes (Manduca m61), Vinicius, Morais, Aloneftis; Sheridan (Djebbour m75), De Vincenti (Charalambides m79).
Goal: m28 Piqué 1-0
Yellow cards: m11 Vinicius, m27 Antoniades,