The pressure cranked up on Ernesto Valverde by yet another notch as Barcelona failed to re-energise their season with a limp display at home against Slavia Prague.
Leading La Liga and still top of Group F in the Champions League, the tables cannot apologise for Barca’s alarming displays. Having been peppered by Slavia in a fortunate 2-1 victory away from home last month, the Czechs brought a stoic defence and threat on the counter to Spain.
Barca had their chances. A classic Lionel Messi run and strike thundered off the left-hand join of the goal, while the Argentine was judged to be narrowly offside in the second half in setting up what would have been an Arturo Vidal tap-in.
Ondrej Kolar made several fine saves for the visitors as fortune favoured the brave.
As for Valverde, favour has all but run out. ‘V’ keys were being worn to a nub as #ValverdeOut hashtags took over cyberspace once again just a few days on from their 3-1 humbling against Levante.
While he may point to the ostensibly favourable positions Barcelona find themselves in both in La Liga and Europe, supporters can rightfully demand a far superior calibre of performance.
Valverde trying to turn Barcelona's season around... pic.twitter.com/HuIQq9Abau— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) November 5, 2019
The attack is incredibly one-paced. Aside from a few flashes down the right from Nelson Semedo and Ousmane Dembele, who were both wasteful when it mattered, Barca were attracted to the centre like moths to a flame.
Antoine Griezmann drifted inside and the lack of width on the left was only exacerbated when Jordi Alba came off through injury. Vidal pushed so high up as to be in his pocket and Messi was lost somewhere in that mess.
What that created was a chasm between Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong and the rest of the ‘attack’, as Valverde’s only response except for throwing on a 17-year-old Ansu Fati was to push every other player higher up.
Bayern Munich made their move by dispensing with Niko Kovac, but a mid-season firing just isn’t Barcelona’s style. Keep that hash key handy.
Griez ill at ease
Whether he’s having a stonker or a stinker, Luis Suarez never fails to make his presence felt. In the Uruguayan’s absence, Griezmann is simply not being allowed the chance to make the same kind of impact as he’s been given the Philippe Coutinho treatment on the wing.
The left-hand side of the park has been a poisoned chalice for Barcelona since the break-up of MSN. And while the Frenchman is seen as a ‘flexible’ forward, his best form for Atletico Madrid was as a straight-up striker, so dangerous on the fringes of the box.
Barcelona fans when they see Antoine Griezmann playing on the left wing ... pic.twitter.com/lcb2mquqCa— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 5, 2019
He’s being denied the chance to prove his worth and his unease is clearly transferring to the rest of the team. At one point Messi could have squared the ball for an unmarked Griezmann on the edge of the area, but chose to back himself. When it’s Messi there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that – but just who has Griezmann’s back at Barcelona?
From earning $100 a month in Albania and attending trial after trial in Turkey, to giving Nelson Semedo the examination of his life at Camp Nou – the path that Peter Olayinka has taken to the Champions League is far less direct than his playing style.
The Nigerian, whose European odyssey has seen him based in Prague for the best part of three seasons, was the most dangerous player in the first half on a pitch where Lionel Messi was present.
Becoming a huge fan of Peter Olayinka at Slavia Praha. Very good at timing his runs in behind the defence, and is such a live wire, never making sure his defenders constantly have to watch their back. It's quite fascinating to watch how much he unsettles through simple movement. pic.twitter.com/Q6QawinOsS— Jonas Giæver (@CheGiaevara) November 5, 2019
Semedo didn’t know which way to turn, Vidal had a customary hack, but the lanky 23-year-old kept coming back with his unrelenting, if rather unrefined, forward runs.
He was not the only Slavia player to catch the eye – his forward partner Lukas Masopust made life difficult for Barca’s ragged back-four and Tomas Soucek, the holding midfielder, did not put a foot wrong – but Olayinka is worth keeping tabs on.
The first Nigerian to score on his Champions League debut since a 17-year-old Yakubu in 2002 when he smashed home against Inter Milan, a little more poise to his game could see him climb yet another rung to a bigger club.
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The Champions League group stage continues this week with holders Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea all in action.
City top their group on maximum points, while the other three English clubs have plenty still to do in their bid to qualify for the knockout phase.
Here, the PA news agency takes a look at five things to look out for in the fourth round of fixtures.
Reds have no room for error
Liverpool, aiming for a third straight Group E win, cannot afford to drop points at Anfield on Tuesday against Belgian champions Genk. Jurgen Klopp’s side have beaten Salzburg and Genk since launching their European title defence with defeat in Napoli, while Sadio Mane’s last-gasp goal at Aston Villa on Saturday kept them top of the Premier League. Klopp will surely have one eye on Sunday’s home clash with Manchester City when finalising his squad for Tuesday’s tie.
City set sights on Italian job
City have so far dominated Group E, taking maximum points while conceding one goal in the process. Pep Guardiola’s side, who have won five straight games in all competitions since last month’s shock home defeat to Wolves, could qualify as group winners with victory in Italy on Wednesday against Atalanta if Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk draw their match. Raheem Sterling fired a hat-trick when City thrashed the Serie A high-flyers 5-1 two weeks ago.
Blues aim to go double Dutch
Chelsea will leapfrog Ajax at the top of Group H if they beat the Dutch giants at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday. Michy Batshuayi’s late winner at the Johan Cruijff Arena a fortnight ago sealed the Blues’ second group win and put them back in contention after losing their opening group game to Valencia. Frank Lampard’s young side are in top form, winning eight of their last nine in all competitions, but defeat, coupled with a Valencia win against Lille, could spell trouble.
Spurs must end away-day blues
Tottenham gave their Group B qualifying hopes a huge boost two weeks ago by following up their 7-2 home defeat to Bayern Munich by thrashing Red Star 5-0. Spurs head to Belgrade for the return on Wednesday knowing another win will put them in a strong position, but they have not won away from home in any competition this season. It remains to be seen if Son Heung-min will feature. He appeared distraught after his tackle on Andre Gomes in Sunday’s draw at Goodison Park left the Everton midfielder with a fracture dislocation to his right ankle.
Barca must pick themselves up again
Barcelona’s quest for domestic and European glory this season was dealt another stunning blow on Saturday when they lost 3-1 at Levante. Ernesto Valverde’s side, and Lionel Messi in particular, had been in breathtaking form four days earlier against Valladolid, but who knows what display they will put on at Camp Nou on Tuesday against Slavia Prague? Barca were fortunate to beat them 2-1 in the Czech Republic capital two weeks ago.
Provided by Press Association Sports
Frank Lampard has warned Chelsea he expects an even tougher encounter with Ajax than they faced in Amsterdam.
The Blues registered arguably their finest result under Lampard when they beat last season’s Champions League semi-finalists 1-0 last month.
Michy Batshuayi’s late strike drew Chelsea level with the Dutch champions at the top of Group H, and another win on Tuesday night would leave them with one foot in the next round.
However, Lampard said: “I wouldn’t like to say that until that foot is officially in the next round.
“I said at the start that this group would be tight because all the teams could take points off each other. That has been proved to be correct.
“We’ve had two good results and another one would be great for us with two games left, but we must understand that even though we are at home now, the quality and the danger from Ajax is as much, if not more, than the game we played away because they are such a good, technical team.
“After losing the opening game against Valencia, which was disappointing, we have shown a great reaction from that.
“I have to accept it’s expected of Chelsea to go through and that is no disrespect to any other teams. I have said already how hard the group is but it is more about our own expectations.
“That is maybe why we had that reaction. We wanted to prove ourselves, we wanted to go to Ajax and Lille and get results, and we did.
“But we won’t get carried away with ourselves in this group.”
Chelsea’s appeal against a two-window transfer ban imposed by FIFA is due to come before the Court of Arbitration for Sport on November 20.
The club were unsuccessful in overturning the decision when they presented their case to FIFA’s appeals committee in April and now CAS will rule on the issue.
Yet the feeling among some Chelsea fans is that they do not need the ban overturning, given the success currently being enjoyed by Lampard’s young side.
The Stamford Bridge boss added: “We’re on a good run, though, aren’t we? You never know.
“That’s a nice feeling. Of course some players have come in and shown with their opportunities they’ve been given that they can have roles and play well. We are getting results at the moment.
“Chelsea will always look to improve in the windows if we can, if we’re allowed to and if the players we might look at are better or we feel are adding to the squad.
“But at the minute I’m very happy with what I’ve got, so I suppose that’s why the fans are as well.”
One of those youngsters, Mason Mount, is relishing the pressure that comes with mixing it with Europe’s elite.
“We know how important it is to get results in the Champions League,” said the 20-year-old midfielder.
“After the first game we were a bit down but we took positives from it. We knew that going away to France and Holland we needed to get results, to be professional, and we did that.
“So hopefully now we can bring that form back to Stamford Bridge.”
Provided by Press Association Sports