Barcelona host Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday night with the knowledge that victory would secure top spot in the group – but also with the fear that a defeat could leave them needing to take something from their last game at Inter Milan to avoid elimination.
The Spanish side have gone 34 games and six and a half years unbeaten at home in the Champions League, but their form this season has been consistently worrying and Saturday’s fortuitous 2-1 league victory over rock-bottom Leganes sowed yet more doubt.
And despite seeing his team top of both La Liga and their Champions League group, Barca manager Ernesto Valverde is a man under pressure ahead of a potentially explosive encounter – exacerbated by a long list of absentees in the defence.
MAKESHIFT DEFENCE SET FOR BIG TEST
Barca are heading into the game with serious personnel problems at the back, with central defensive lynchpin Gerard Pique suspended while starting full-backs Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba are both injured.
French central defender Clement Lenglet missed Saturday’s game at Leganes through injury, but he is expected to be rushed back to play alongside compatriot Samuel Umtiti, who is decidedly lacking in match sharpness and will be playing in consecutive games for the first time in more than a year.
Sergi Roberto and Junior Firpo are expected to line up in the full-back positions complete a makeshift back line, with untested youngsters Jean-Clair Todibo, Ronald Araujo and Moussa Wague standing by to make their Champions League debuts if required.
It’s hardly a defensive unit which inspires confidence, so there should be every opportunity for Dortmund to plenty of goalscoring opportunities – especially if Barca fall behind to leave themselves chasing the game.
At least, though, the home team can count upon one factor which could prove beyond valuable: the ongoing brilliance of keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The German shot-stopper could be forced to prove his worth again on Wednesday night.
WHAT NEXT FROM VALVERDE?
4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1…Barca’s problems this season have been compounded by the appearance that Valverde does not appear to know how he wants his team to perform on a structural level, with the third-year coach shifting from one formation to another with every passing game – and often even changing the team’s shape more than once in the same game.
That was the case on Saturday at Leganes, where Barca started off with the supposedly fearsome foursome of Lionel Messi, Ousmane Dembele, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann all lining up in the starting eleven for the first time, before the failure of that approach to create any danger led to wingers Dembele and Griezmann both being replaced as the formation reverted to a 4-3-3.
Barca’s lack of fluency is reflected in the shocking fact that six of their last seven goals have arisen from dead-ball situations, including both at Leganes as Suarez headed home Messi’s free-kick and substitute Arturo Vidal scrambled home from a corner.
Even Lionel Messi, who is set to make his 700th Barca appearance, has failed to score from open play in the last four games, and the skipper is bearing the look of a man who is burdened by the same expectations he has often faced at international level of carrying the whole attack by himself.
Valverde complained that his team is “expected to give footballing lessons in every game” during his pre-game press conference on Tuesday; if his team don’t start learning their lines soon, he could be left looking for a new school.
FAVRE ON THE BRINK?
Barca aren’t the only under-performers heading into the game, because Dortmund have also suffered in recent weeks with a 4-0 thrashing at arch-rivals Bayern Munich followed by a 3-3 home draw against Bundesliga’s bottom club Paderborn.
Those results have left manager Lucien Favre reportedly battling to save his job, and he could already have been fired if his team hadn’t battled back from 3-0 down to rescue a point against Paderborn at the weekend.
Despite that poor form, though, there is no doubting the quality within Dortmund’s ranks. Marco Reus, Thorgan Hazard and Jadon Sancho all caused serious problems for Barca in their first meeting in Germany, from which the Spanish side were fortunate to escape with a goalless draw, but former Barca striker Paco Alcacer has been ruled out of a Camp Nou return with a combination of knee and stomach problems.
Dortmund have shown their resilience by fighting back not only against Paderborn but also against Inter Milan in their last Champions League outing, and Favre will be desperate those fighting qualities can emerge once more to secure the point – or more – his team needs to stay ahead of Inter in the qualification race.
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