Barcelona face Ansu Fati decision as Lionel Messi eyes Borussia Dortmund return

Andy West 16/09/2019
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Barcelona will seek to bury some demons as they travel to Borussia Dortmund for their first Champions League outing since the trauma of last season’s semi-final exit at Liverpool.

The game at Anfield was just one of several disappointing recent away performances from Ernesto Valverde’s men, who have won just one of the last seven games on their travels.

But they are set to receive the boost of a rather important player returning from injury, which has to be the first of our talking points ahead of the game…

Messi back, Fati out?

The sight Barcelona fans have been waiting for could finally become reality as Lionel Messi inches closer to his first appearance of the season. The Argentine skipper has not played since suffering a calf injury during pre-season, but he has been given the medical all-clear and made the trip to Germany after completing two full training sessions.

Being fit to play is one thing, but being fit to start is quite another – especially considering the intense nature of the occasion and the fact that Messi has not played any football since appearing for Argentina in Copa America more than two months ago. So it’s probably wise to expect Messi to feature only from the bench, with Antoine Griezmann partnered in attack by Luis Suarez after the Uruguayan star netted twice from the bench against Valencia on Saturday to prove his fitness.

That does, however, leave the question of teen sensation Ansu Fati, who became the youngest player to score and assist in the same game in La Liga history on Saturday. Dare Valverde give the 16 year-old another start in such a tough game, or will he strengthen his midfield with a more experienced player like Arturo Vidal or Ivan Rakitic?

Settling for a draw?

The tactical battle will be a fascinating one as respective coaches Lucien Favre and Ernesto Valverde confront a testing question: how much do they want to win?

Realistically, a draw would be a perfectly acceptable result for both teams as the group stage kicks off with one of their most difficult encounters: Barca would be more than happy to come away with a point considering their terrible form away from home over the last few months, while Dortmund will see Inter as their main rivals for a qualification spot and regard any points gained against Barca as a bonus.

However, Dortmund’s famous ‘yellow wall’ of fans inside the always highly atmospheric 81,000 capacity Westfalenstadion are unlikely to take such a sensible approach, and will instead urge on their players to push forward and add to the long list of famous European victories they have enjoyed in the last few years – especially after seeing Dortmund score 11 goals in their three out of three home victories this season.

Barca, similarly, are always at their best when they dominate possession and push back the opposition rather than sitting deep and defending their penalty area, so we are unlikely to witness a tactical cat and mouse stalemate…however much the two coaches might like it to happen.

Ter Stegen’s point to prove?

TerStegenBarcelonaArsenal (1)

Marc-Andre ter Stegen will be heading back to his native country with a point to prove, with the Barca keeper embroiled in a nation-wide debate over whether he should be installed as the first choice goalkeeper for Germany.

Until now, long-serving manager Joachim Low has kept faith with iconic skipper Manuel Neuer, despite several high-profile errors by the 33 year-old Bayern Munich keeper while ter Stegen has been a model of consistency for Barca throughout the last few seasons.

Ter Stegen inflamed the situation by admitting that his trip away with Low and his squad for the recent international break was hard to take, even appearing to question his future availability after he sat on the bench to watch Neuer ship four goals in a heavy defeat to the Netherlands but still retain his place for a comfortable subsequent victory over Northern Ireland.

A strong performance in this showpiece occasion – against Lucien Favre, his former manager at Moenchengladbach – would further strengthen ter Stegen’s case to be given a chance for Germany, and Low will no doubt be watching closely.

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Watch: Ernesto Valverde to protect Barcelona starlet Ansu Fati from Lionel Messi comparisons

Sport360 staff 16/09/2019
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Ansu Fati.

Reaction after teenager Ansu Fati stole the show as Barcelona posted a convincing win over Valencia at Camp Nou on Saturday.

The 16-year-old became Barcelona’s youngest ever scorer when he netted against Osasuna prior to the international break and, pushed into the starting line-up, he needed less than two minutes to find the net again.

Fati then set up Frenkie De Jong for the second only four minutes later and, although defensively they were shaky again, Barcelona went on to claim a 5-2 win.

Watch head coach Ernesto Valverde’s reaction above:










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Barcelona starlet Ansu Fati on course to break the myth of drying La Masia

Andy West 15/09/2019
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Ansu Fati

These have been a rough few years for La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy programme.

Not so long ago, Barca were winning title after title while regularly fielding entire teams consisting of homegrown products, basking in the glory of a group of superstars such as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi ably complemented by a valuable backbone of players like Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro.

Barca’s ability to churn out brilliant youngsters dripping with the club’s DNA was the envy of the world, with jealous clubs from the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A and far beyond routinely sending their youth development staff on spying missions with the task of discovering just how they did it.

More recently, however, a series of setbacks have seen much of that lustre lost, and La Masia’s status as the undoubted industry leader come under heavy questioning.

Most seriously, the club was hit by a transfer ban from FIFA after being found guilty of breaking regulations on the signing of junior players from overseas. Were Barca, the question was whispered, only so good at bringing through youngsters because they had been cheating?

At the same time, the production line started to dry up. Whereas once Camp Nou coaches had been able to replace outgoing players by calling upon the latest recruits from their academy, now they were forced into splurging vast sums on exports such as Neymar, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.

Ousmane Dembele

Ousmane Dembele.

Even worse, many of the most promising prospects to emerge through the system decided they didn’t want to play for Barca after all, with Eric Garcia (to Manchester City), Jordi Mboula (to Monaco) and Xavi Simons (to Paris St Germain) among those to quit the club for pastures new when they were on the verge of challenging for first team football.

Perhaps, however, the main problem wasn’t that La Masia’s standards had dropped; maybe instead Barca were simply a victim of their own success.

Bringing through players like Messi, Iniesta and Xavi at more or less the same time is a freakish, once-in-a-lifetime achievement, which can never be replicated and set unrealistically high expectations. Similarly, the quality of that batch of players – and the long list of trophies they secured – meant that the club’s standards had been raised up a notch or five, making it much, much harder for young players to break into the first team than it ever had been before.

La Masia’s standards, it could be argued, had not slipped to below par. They had merely reverted to the norm, dropping from a fantastically high level to a more reasonable rate of production.

Riqui Puig

Riqui Puig.

Just looking around La Liga’s squad lists, which are peppered with players who came through La Masia, makes it clear that Barca hadn’t stopped producing top-quality professionals. From Marc Cucurella (Getafe) and Munir El Haddadi (Sevilla) to Xavi Quintilla (Villarreal) and Rodrigo Tarin (Leganes), the club’s youth graduates are scattered liberally across the country, and it’s very rare indeed to watch any La Liga game that doesn’t feature at least one former Barca trainee.

And now, in a startling reassertion of its powers, La Masia appears to have struck genuine 24-carat gold with the emergence of the man (or boy) of the moment: Ansu Fati.

The freakishly gifted 16 year-old winger isn’t alone. Many Barca fans, for example, are desperate to see more playing time for another starlet, Riqui Puig, whose ability to control the midfield is uncannily similar to the skillset previously displayed by Xavi.

Then there’s Carles Perez, who has burst onto the scene this season to serve as a more than capable deputy for Lionel Messi, and looks likely to become a very valuable member of the squad for years to come – as does Carles Alenya, despite falling out of favour in recent weeks.

So we should probably conclude that reports of La Masia’s demise were grossly exaggerated…and if Fati continues like he has started, Barca’s status as the world’s greatest producer of youth talent will surely be regained.

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