After starting off their Champions League campaigns with disappointing draws against Borussia Dortmund and Slavia Prague respectively, Wednesday night sees Barcelona and Inter Milan go head to head for a crucial battle at the Camp Nou.
Barca earned a 2-0 home win over the Italian team when they met in last season’s group stage, and Ernesto Valverde’s men desperately need another victory to put themselves into a strong position in a very challenging group.
Let’s take a look at the key talking points ahead of the action.
MUST-WIN FOR BARCA?
This is arguably the Group of Death in this season’s pre-knockout stage, with Barca and Inter facing the very real prospect of failing to advance to the last 16 they falter badly in their head to head meetings – especially if Dortmund pick up all three points in Prague in Wednesday’s early kick-off.
In that context, a draw would be a more than decent result for Inter, who would be able to prepare for their rematch with Barca at the San Siro knowing a win – against a team which has struggled for away form recently – could well be enough to send them through.
Barca, therefore, are heading into the game knowing that only a victory will be satisfactory, and coach Ernesto Valverde faces an interesting team selection in terms of how many attacking players he elects to take the game to the visitors.
A fairly conservative team performance allowed Barca to perform well at the back and gain their first away win of the season with a 2-0 triumph at Getafe on Saturday, and Valverde – by nature a risk-averse coach – will be eager to provide another springboard for success with a similarly strong defensive display.
Keeping the back door locked while still committing enough players into attack is the balance Barca have to strike.
MESSI AND DEMBELE STILL OUT?
Naturally, Valverde’s team line-up will be largely conditioned by the availability of Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele, who both sat out the win at Getafe after muscular injuries but returned to training this week in a bid to prove their fitness for the game.
With teen sensation Ansu Fati also missing through injury, Barca fielded a front line of Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann and Carles Perez for the win at Getafe. The former pair are certain starters against Inter, and Perez played a full role in the weekend victory by having a shot saved for the second goal, netted on the rebound by Junior Firpo, as well as working hard defensively down the right flank.
Valverde was non-committal about Messi and Dembele’s chances of making the game but realistically the best he can hope for is naming them on the bench.
Perez, therefore, is likely to retain his place in the starting line-up – unless Valverde decides to bolster his midfield with one of his many options, such as Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Carles Alenya, to play alongside probable starters Sergio Busquets, Arthur and Frenkie de Jong.
CAN CONTE WIN THE TACTICAL BATTLE?
After coming very close to being appointed at Real Madrid last season before Los Blancos president Florentino Perez called the deal off, new Inter boss Antonio Conte will be desperate to show the Bernabeu top brass what they are missing by claiming a point or more at the Camp Nou.
As with Valverde’s need to find a balance for his team, Inter’s tactical approach for the game comes with a dilemma: do they sit back in classical Italian style and play for a goalless draw, or do they attempt to exploit Barca’s defensive frailties by going for the jugular?
Three new signings will play key roles, and two of them know the Camp Nou extremely well: former Atletico Madrid man Diego Godin will attempt to shackle his compatriot Luis Suarez at one end, while Romelu Lukaku and ex-Barca forward Alexis Sanchez, if selected, will seek to do damage at the other.
Conte, whose team have won all six of their Serie A outings to date, certainly has plenty of resources at his disposal – he has used 19 different players already this season, with only Marcelo Brozovic and Milan Skriniar starting every game among outfield players.
How Conte decides to shuffle his pack will bear a huge influence on the pattern of play, and it will be fascinating to see the extent of Inter’s attacking intent.
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