Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde has a big decision to make ahead of his team’s tough meeting with Sevilla at Camp Nou on Sunday night.
In fact, he has a few decisions, starting in the centre of defence where he must choose whether to replace the suspended Clement Lenglet with the inexperienced Jean-Clair Todibo, or by repositioning a more senior player.
At the other end of the field, Valverde is dealing with the conundrum of how to deal with Lionel Messi’s continuing rehabilitation from the injuries which sidelined him during the opening weeks of the season. Messi played the full 90 minutes for the first time in three months as he helped his team earn a 2-1 Champions League victory over Inter Milan on Wednesday, but is it realistic to expect the skipper to play another full game just four days later?
The biggest decision facing Valverde, however, is in the centre of the pitch, where he faces a dilemma over a long-serving and iconic stalwart of the club: Sergio Busquets.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that Busquets has been a magnificent performer for Barca over the last ten years, playing a fundamental role in arguably the greatest team in history as he helped Xavi and Andres Iniesta control the middle of the field and orchestrate their passing carousel.
Time, though, spares nobody. Busquets is now 31-years old and showing all the signs of wear and tear you would expect from a man who has played nearly 700 games for club and country in the last decade. He is also surrounded by different team-mates, who play in a more direct manner with less obsession over dominating the area of the pitch he patrols.
For those reasons, he is starting to look, in short, over the hill. Busquets has never possessed particularly impressive physical powers, but in the past his lack of speed and dynamism were masked. Now, they are being brutally exposed and making him a liability.
Perhaps the starkest indication of his struggles yet came in Wednesday’s meeting with Inter, when the Italian team were far superior in the first half as they regularly succeeded in driving through the middle of the pitch and towards Barca’s area, virtually without impediment as Busquets looked on helplessly. Antonio Conte’s men also made a point of harrying Busquets in possession, constantly looking capable of robbing him of the ball in a dangerous part of the pitch.
Early in the second half, Valverde took remedial action. Busquets was replaced and Frenkie de Jong and Arthur – who had been playing either side in a classic midfield trio – were positioned more centrally in a double-pivot in front of the back four.
Barca’s improvement was instant and dramatic, with the new midfield duo establishing a control and calmness which had been entirely lacking in the first half, while the advanced position of substitute Arturo Vidal – taking advantage of the security offered by de Jong and Arthur – added an entirely different dimension to the team’s previously toothless attack.
The contrast between Barca’s vulnerability with Busquets and their effectiveness without him must surely have set thoughts running in Valverde’s head – and, in truth, those thoughts were probably already there, because Busquets has been looking frail for a couple of years now, with Wednesday’s struggles only really reaffirming what had gone before.
The future of Barca’s midfield, and maybe even the present, will probably consist of the Arthur and De Jong double axis protecting the back four and providing a solid base for another midfielder – Vidal, Sergi Roberto, Carles Alena or maybe even Messi – to roam forward in support of the attack.
Busquets, of course, could adapt and play alongside De Jong or Arthur in the double-pivot himself – he did so with huge success next to Xabi Alonso for many years in the Spanish national team.
But the hard truth is that, against top-class opposition, Busquets no longer looks good enough. His qualities are being drowned out by his deficiencies, and many pundits are starting to conclude that his time in the limelight could be coming to a close.
Sunday’s team sheet should provide a big club over whether Valverde shares that belief.
Lionel Messi was back in the starting line-up, but it was Luis Suarez who proved to be the Camp Nou’s champion with a brace to earn Barcelona a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Inter Milan and him the Carolina Herrera hero of the day.
Love him, hate him, you can’t help but rate him, especially in the twilight of his career where he’s had his struggles with both form and fitness.
It was far from vintage from the hosts – second best for long periods – but it was vintage Suarez, who delivered two sublime finishes to rescue his side.
After a dull draw – that they were lucky to get – in Dortmund on matchday one, Barca were staring down the barrel of just one point from their first two Group F games.
In a group containing Inter and Dortmund, that could have proved precarious. And while there was much to admonish the Blaugrana for on Wednesday, Suarez papered over the cracks with two pristine finishes in the second half.
For a long time it looked as if an Argentine – no, not Messi – would steal the headlines after Lautaro Martinez made it 1-0 to become the first Inter player to score at the Camp Nou since 1970.
But Suarez acrobatically volleyed Barca level just before the break and then calmly took a Messi pass in his stride, striding through the away defence and slotting past Samir Handanovic and stealing the show.
AGE – 32
SHOTS – 3
ON TARGET – 3
GOALS – 2
MINUTES – 90
It’s hardly desperate times for the Spanish giants, but they certainly needed a lift after a patchy start to the season – both domestically and abroad.
And, with Messi nowhere near his best and perhaps unable to inspire his side like only he can, responsibility fell on Antoine Griezmann and Suarez’s shoulders to step up.
This task was made even taller when Martinez gave the visitors the lead. But while Griezmann continues to toil in Barca blue and burgundy, Suarez basked in the heat and intensity of the moment to deliver two sizzling strikes.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as the veteran Uruguayan put in a clinical display of finishing to rob the Nerazzurri of a historic victory.
He’s been dogged by jibes of being in a rapid decline, yet two finishes of the highest order, on the grandest stage, will force his critics into an even quicker retreat. Suarez is still a showstopper.
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.