Fresh from securing the league title and then claiming a 3-0 victory over Liverpool in midweek, Barcelona travel to take on relegation candidates Celta Vigo in a game which has far more consequence for the hosts than the Catalan giants.
Manager Ernesto Valverde made sweeping changes to the team that faced Liverpool, giving an important opportunity to some players – and one in particular – to state their case for more playing time.
Find out more with our pre-game talking points.
All change for Barca
With the league title already secure, Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde made wholesale changes from the side that started against Liverpool in Wednesday’s Champions League first leg victory at the Camp Nou, ensuring his key players are not at risk of injury before Tuesday’s second leg at Anfield. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Gerard Pique are among those who get a much needed break.
That gives opportunities for potentially important players like Carles Alenya, Samuel Umtiti and Arthur Melo to sharpen up their match fitness, as well as giving outings to fringe players such as young defenders Moussa Wague and Jean-Clair Todibo, who are hoping to catch the eye for the future.
Brazilian winger Malcom is among those likely to start and he will be particularly keen to send Valverde a reminder of his existence after barely featuring in recent weeks, and January signing Kevin-Prince Boateng could have the chance to finally make an impact after a decidedly underwhelming stint at the club so far.
Will Dembele find form?
No player has more at stake for Barca than Ousmane Dembele, who somehow managed to deliver an appalling performance against Liverpool in midweek despite only being on the pitch for less than five minutes.
Virtually everything Dembele did went wrong after he was introduced for Luis Suarez inside stoppage time, including a horrendous scuffed shot with the last kick of the game when he had a golden chance to send the tie out of Liverpool’s reach with a fourth goal.
Unfortunately, that brief but disastrous cameo only served to underline the fact that Dembele has really struggled to find his form since returning from a hamstring injury last month, and Valverde must be reluctant to give the French forward extended playing time at Anfield unless he can deliver a dramatically improved performance this weekend. Ideally, Dembele’s pace on the break could play an important part in Barca’s strategy in the second leg, but that won’t happen if his current form continues. A strong display at Celta is badly needed.
Aspas to save Celta again?
If any player in La Liga is even more important to their club’s fortunes than Messi, that man surely is Celta forward Iago Aspas. The hometown hero has recently returned from injury to prompt a remarkable upsurge in form, helping the Galician team gain 12 points from their last seven outings after previously losing 10 of their 12 games without him.
Aspas has scored six goals and assisted four more during that recent run, lifting Celta out of the bottom three in an increasingly closely fought battle against relegation which has the bottom six teams separated by just seven points with three games remaining.
Celta are currently two points better off than Real Valladolid in the last relegation spot, and they will surely never have a better opportunity to beat Barcelona with the visitors set to field effectively a reserve team. And Aspas, assuming he overcomes a minor shoulder injury suffered in last week’s draw at Leganes, will play the lead role in their quest for three vital points.
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A 3-0 win in the first leg and the liberty of resting players in the weekend game, having won the league already. It would be logical to suggest that Barcelona have the tie in the bag already and are on course to secure yet another European treble. But the job is far from over and Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde knows it.
“It is a great result, but last year we also had an advantage of three goals and well, something happened to us,” the Catalan giants coach said.
Credit when due, Valverde has learnt from his mistakes in Roma last season when Barcelona failed to protect a 4-1 first-leg advantage. He has been consistent and intelligent with his rotations. More importantly, Lionel Messi has been used sparingly and protected very well for the most important phase of the season. The Argentine is currently in his best physical and mental state and this is really crucial for the Catalan giants.
While it looks that Barcelona have put the ghosts of Rome behind them and done well to prevent a similar debacle, they can’t rest now and let slip a great opportunity to seal a third treble.
For most parts of the game – especially in the first half – Liverpool were clearly the superior team. Jurgen Klopp’s high press made it difficult for Barcelona to play out from the back.
The front-line disappointed for the visitors but Klopp’s plan worked well and the score-line is a bit harsh on them. Liverpool can return home knowing they did their best, but they have an uphill task in the second leg.
Barcelona’s away record in the knockout stages of the Champions League is poor and the result at Old Trafford earlier this season is merely an anomaly. It’s the away leg that has prevented them from progressing beyond the quarterfinal stage ever since they won it in 2015. Although, the Spanish giants did well to break the curse this season, they need to be wary of this Liverpool side which has the potential to cause an upset.
Arturo Vidal started in midfield to add more control and allow Sergio Busquets the liberty to roam and fledge his creative wings. It would be logical to assume that Valverde will opt for the same midfield in the second leg.
Philippe Coutinho started ahead of Ousmane Dembele as Valverde preferred legs in midfield rather than explosive fire-power in the front-line. But the Brazilian offered little on both fronts and failed to justify Valverde’s selection.
Keeping Dembele on the bench was one of the mistakes that allowed Roma to progress into the semi-final last season. Valverde must think twice before repeating it. An early away goal could kill the tie and the threat Dembele poses in a situation like this is immense.
Barcelona have managed to hold it together and win games in which they have been second best. The night at Anfield next week could prove to be one of similar nature. Liverpool’s gegenpressing and the electric crowd at Anfield can push the Catalans to the brink.
Valverde’s men are almost there, but the next step could probably be the biggest one as they look to finish off the season on a high.
Barcelona should have won more Champions League titles in the Messi era and can’t afford to let slip an opportunity to add one more to the tally. It won’t be easy, especially with Firmino reaching full-fitness and possibly starting the game. But Barcelona have Messi.
Barcelona forward Lionel Messi has called for more patience with regard to the Philippe Coutinho situation.
The Argentine scored a splendid free-kick as part of his brace and the celebration that followed was a signal to the fans, asking them to stop whistling at out-of-touch Coutinho.
The Brazilian – who has been poor this season – had a sub-par game against his former club and was taken off close to the hour mark. This prompted a series of boos and jeers from the Camp Nou crowd who have not shied away from expressing their displeasure at the winger.
But Messi prefers that the fans and players stay united at a time like this.
“This is a time when we have to be more united than ever, both as players and fans,” he said at full-time,” according to Marca.
“It is not the time to criticise anyone. The whistles against Coutinho are ugly. We have to be together.”
“Four would’ve been better than three but it’s still a very good result,” Messi added.
“3-0 is a very good result. The tie is not decided because we are going to a historical stadium and it will demand a lot, but we are very satisfied.”
“It went in spectacularly well; I saw the spot and luckily enough, that’s where it went,” said Messi.