Barcelona progress in Champions League not a formality, says Ernesto Valverde

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Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde has warned victory over Lyon in the second leg of their last-16 Champions League tie is no formality.

Valverde’s side are big favourites after squandering a hatful of chances when they were held to a goalless draw in France three weeks ago.

But following shock wins last week for Manchester United and Ajax against big guns Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid respectively, Valverde is taking nothing for granted.

“Nil-nil from the first leg is a result which benefits neither side because if neither of us score it will go into extra time,” Valverde told a press conference.

“Lyon will come here with their weapons, they’ve got a very strong attack – very quick, powerful players up front and I’m sure they’ll try to exploit that. They know how important it would be for them to get an away goal tomorrow, so I’m sure they’ll look for that too.”

Barca made a surprise quarter-final exit last season after being knocked out by Roma and while Valverde said that was of little concern, he admitted last week’s upsets proved there are no easy games in the knockout stages.

“Look, we’re not worrying too much about what happened a year ago, we’ve spoken enough about that. We’re just worried about tomorrow’s game,” Valverde said.

“Last year happened. The other Champions League games are very important to appreciate what the other teams are like and it’s a reminder that there are no small teams.

“Also, the result of the first leg does not always matter that much. You’ve seen some big turnarounds in the games last week. But in our case it’s a very balanced result from the first leg. We have to win tomorrow if we want to qualify.”

Nabil Fekir is relishing Lyon's clash with Barca.

Nabil Fekir is relishing Lyon’s clash with Barca.

Valverde confirmed Ousmane Dembele will be assessed but he remains a big doubt after sustaining a hamstring injury in Saturday’s home win against Rayo Vallecano, which kept Barca seven points clear at the top of La Liga.

Lyon captain Nabil Fekir missed the first leg through suspension and said he had been counting down the days for Wednesday’s return fixture.

“Barcelona are one of the best teams in Europe,” the France international told Lyon’s official website.

“It’s always fun to play against these kinds of teams and it’s normal that the fans expect a lot from me in this match. We will give our all. Even if we know that it’s going to be a tough match.”

Lyon let slip a two-goal lead at Strasbourg on Saturday and lie third in Ligue 1, seven points behind second-placed Lille and 21 adrift of runaway leaders PSG.

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Barcelona v Lyon: Talking points as Ernesto Valverde faces decision over Ousmane Dembele

Andy West 12/03/2019
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Ousmane Dembele

Barcelona will attempt to advance into the Champions League quarter-finals with tonight’s second leg at home to Lyon.

The tie is perfectly poised after a goalless draw in the first leg, and although Barca are favourites to progress they will have to do something they could not manage in Lyon: score.

And in attempting to do that, there is a significant selection dilemma for home team coach Ernesto Valverde – which is the first of our big talking points for the game.

WILL VALVERDE TAKE A RISK WITH DEMBELE?

Ousmane Dembele

Ousmane Dembele

Barca’s team more or less picks itself with one major exception: the unknown fitness status of Ousmane Dembele, who suffered a hamstring strain after coming on as a substitute during Saturday night’s victory over Rayo Vallecano and is now a serious doubt for the game.

Even if Dembele is passed fit, Barca boss Valverde would have to take a fairly sizeable risk to select a player who would surely be in danger of re-injuring himself, and Valverde – as we have seen many times in the past – is not the type of coach to take risks unless he has to.

The probability, then, is that Dembele will be restricted to the bench at best. The most obvious option to replace him is Philippe Coutinho, but the Brazilian’s poor run of form has become so deeply ingrained it’s hard to see how he can escape it – especially as quickly as this must-win encounter.

Perhaps, then, Valverde will give another chance to Malcom, who has bizarrely barely featured since delivering a strong goal-scoring display in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final against Real Madrid more than a month ago. Or he may opt to strengthen the midfield with the inclusion of Arturo Vidal, Sergi Roberto or Carles Alena. We will find out an hour before kick-off.

IS SUAREZ EXHAUSTED? 

Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez

The first leg saw Barca dominate long periods and create several decent chances to score but eventually settle for a stalemate, with their inability to finish off their approach play explained to a significant extent by a wayward performance from Luis Suarez.

Throughout his Barca career the Uruguayan striker has always been a player of extremes, oscillating rather wildly between games when he looks incapable of controlling or making the simplest of passes and many others when he is virtually unstoppable.

With no other genuine centre forwards in the squad, the concern is that Suarez – now 32 years old – is being forced to play more games than he should and therefore risks tiring himself out, making those dips in performance appear more regularly.

Suarez himself admitted he should have taken more rest towards the tail end of last season, but so far lessons do not appear to have been learned: he again played the full 90 minutes against Rayo on Saturday, and has completed more playing time in La Liga than any other outfield player except Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba.

Clearly, a fit and firing Luis Suarez would give Barca a major boost in their quest for progression tonight, but the question is simple: which version of the striker will turn up?

HOW WILL LYON PLAY IT?

Bruno Genesio

Bruno Genesio

It will be fascinating to see how Lyon coach Bruno Genesio sets up his team for the game, and how he instructs them to play.

One way for the French team to approach the tie is an attack-minded attitude, based on the premise that they are unlikely to keep a clean sheet against Barca at the Camp Nou, and will therefore almost certainly need to score at least once – and perhaps twice – to progress.

Lyon are the second-highest scoring team in Ligue 1, behind only Paris Saint-Germain, with an average of nearly two goals per game. And their success in the Champions League group stage was also very much based on scoring: results included a 2-1 win at Manchester City, a 2-2 home draw with the English champions and a 3-3 draw at Hoffenheim.

So this is a team very much built for attacking football, and Genesio’s men would be going against their natural instincts if they attempted to sit back and play on the break. But this is Barcelona, at the Camp Nou, in the knockout stages of the Champions League…will they really dare to take them on and risk leaving space for Lionel Messi and co to exploit?

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Barcelona 3-1 Rayo Vallecano: Arturo Vidal presses case to be go-to man in midfield

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Lionel Messi, as always, was at the forefront of La Liga leaders Barcelona’s 3-1 come-from-behind triumph against struggling Rayo Vallecano.

To mark the Argentina legend’s 443rd top-flight run-out, the second most in Barca’s history, he produced an assist for centre-back Gerard Pique’s headed leveller to Real Madrid loanee Raul de Tomas’ superb solo strike and then converted a penalty to make it 2-1. Uruguay hit man Luis Suarez would only make Saturday’s result safe late on, via a tap-in.

But behind Messi’s brilliance, stood the ubiquitous Arturo Vidal. The Chile battler was everywhere at Camp Nou.

Here’s his performance in focus:

KEY STATS

Shots: 0

Touches: 116

Total passes: 95

Pass accuracy: 95.8%

Tackles: 8

Interceptions: 3

30-SECOND REPORT

Barca’s commanding seven-point advantage in the La Liga title race remained intact, despite a scare against second-bottom Rayo.

De Tomas darted half the length of the pitch for the visitors, stood up Portuguese right-back Nelson Semedo and accurately found the bottom corner in the 24th minute. Barca, however, kept pressing and Messi swung in a set-piece that Pique rose highest to meet just before the break.

By 51 minutes, the game was turned around when Semedo was scythed down. Messi did the business from 12 yards, also moving him onto 26 strikes in 25 La Liga fixtures this term.

A ninth home win of the season was then secured on 82 minutes when Croatia substitute Ivan Rakitic teed up Suarez from close range.

GOT RIGHT

Complete performance: When Barca’s technical staff analyse the data from this contest, then Vidal is sure to come off well.

For Ernesto Valverde’s men, the 31-year-old; made the most tackles (eight), joint-most interceptions (three), most fouls (three), had the best pass accuracy of anyone who made more than 40 passes (95.8 per cent from 95 passes) and had the most touches (116).

With figures like these, you couldn’t wish for a much better foil to the measured Sergio Busquets and lively Arthur in the engine room.

GOT WRONG

The final pass: For all the positives mined from Vidal’s marauding display, one negative can be highlighted.

After he had won the ball to spark a first-half counter-attack, a – slightly – misplaced pass on the edge of the penalty box killed critical momentum.

At Barca, being a destroyer and nuisance isn’t nearly enough. Predecessor Paulinho – renowned more for his attacking box-to-box abilities, admittedly – scored nine times in 49 outings, but was soon discarded as his game was not expansive enough.

Vidal showed at Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Bayern Munich that he possesses more depth. The key is to consistently exhibit it.

KEY MOMENT

23rd min CHANCE: Vidal breaks clear, but his pass is placed just behind Messi. The great man manages to, somehow, place the ball into Coutinho’s path, though an anaemic effort follows.

VERDICT

The summer sale of Paulinho and acquisition of Vidal was meant to place Barca in a better position to challenge on all fronts.

On the evidence to date, this appears a sharp move.

Vidal does not offer the Brazil midfielder’s goal threat, but in nearly all other areas is superior. Aligned with a warrior spirit, he lowers the odds of a remontada to rival last term’s Champions League collapse at Roma from reoccurring.

Rating: 8/10

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