With all 11 starters from Wednesday’s Champions League victory over Liverpool rested, it was no great surprise to see Barcelona brought back down to earth with a 2-0 loss at relegation-threatened but in-form Celta Vigo on Saturday night.
It was Barca’s first defeat in La Liga since November, but visiting boss Ernesto Valverde will have been far more concerned to see one of his key players limp off through injury – and that setback kicks off our talking points from the action at the Balaidos.
DEMBELE DOWN AND OUT?
Ousmane Dembele headed into the game needing to produce a strong performance after a poor run of form, with the hope of persuading boss Ernesto Valverde to give him a prominent role in Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Liverpool.
Instead, though, the French forward only lasted five minutes before breaking down with an injury to his right hamstring, apparently a different but similar problem to the muscular strain on his left leg which recently kept him sidelined for a month.
Not only is Dembele now surely out of contention for the trip to Anfield, there must also be a real danger that he will play no further part for the remainder of the campaign – tests will be carried out on Sunday to ascertain the extent of the damage.
And more than that, his injury-prone ways are starting to pose an increasing threat to his long-term future at the club. Dembele missed four months of action last season, and he has now been sidelined on three separate occasions in the current campaign.
If that continues, he will seriously test the patience of the club’s hierarchy, and Dembele must urgently spend the summer investigating his physical frailty and devising a fitness and conditioning plan to minimise the danger of another injury-disrupted season in 2019/20.
CELTA STAYING UP?
Maxi Gomez’s well-taken opener and Iago Aspas’s late penalty provided a major boost to Celta’s hopes of staying up, lifting the Galician club five points clear of the relegation zone.
Celta know that defeat for third-bottom Real Valladolid at home to Europa League-chasing Athletic Bilbao on Sunday will leave them very close to securing their place in the top flight for next season, and even if other results go against them it seems likely that Celta will pick up the points they need from the final two games.
The appointment of experienced Fran Escriba as manager and – even more importantly – the return to fitness of talisman Aspas following injury has prompted a major upturn in form, and this game again saw Celta looking far too good to go down.
Of course, it hugely helped Celta’s cause that they had the fortune of playing against Barca in the middle of their Champions League semi-final, with the entire starting eleven rested. But Escriba’s men have now lost just one of their last eight games, picking up 15 points in the process, and can start to look forward to next season with optimism.
WELCOME TO THE FUTURE
This was an extremely youthful Barca side featuring eight players aged 22 or less: Jean-Clair Todibo (19), Moussa Wague (20), Carles Alena (21), Riqui Puig (19), Arthur (22), Dembele (21), Malcom (22) and substitute Alex Collado (20).
This glimpse into the future looked promising in midfield, where Arthur acted as the deep-lying pivot with Puig to his right and Alena to his left. They performed pretty well, helping Barca control long periods of the game.
Although there was a lack of cutting edge, that was more explained by poor performances from the front three, and the midfield trio all look capable of establishing regular starting places for many years to come.
Arthur, of course, has already done that, while Alena has now made 25 appearances in all competitions this season. But perhaps the best of all three will be Puig, whose comfort on the ball and excellent range of passing are remarkable for such a young and inexperienced player.
With the extremely exciting Frenkie de Jong, aged 21, also lined up to join Barca from Ajax in the summer, Barca will be abundantly stocked in the centre of the field even after current stars Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic fade into retirement.
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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.
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.