Marc-Andre ter Stegen has warned his Barcelona team-mates of the dangers posed by opponents Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League opener on Tuesday night.
The German goalkeeper says he hopes to start the competition right, especially after Barca’s embarrassing semi-final exit at the hands of eventual champions Liverpool last season.
Beaten 4-3 after losing the Anfield leg 4-0 having won 3-0 at the Camp Nou, Ernesto Valverde’s men are in Group F this time round – and start their campaign with a tough tie at free-scoring Dortmund.
There are doubts about Lionel Messi’s fitness, and hopes among many that the scintillating Ansu Fati starts. If he does, at the age of 16, he will become the youngest Barca starter in their Champions League history.
“It’s clearly not easy to play here in Dortmund, last time I was here with Borussia Moenchengladbach we were made to suffer by BVB,” said Ter Stegen.
“But this time we will try to win the match. The competition begins now and we hope to start it right, with a successful first game to enter the group matches in good spirits.”
Barcelona have yearned for a reliable midfield duo ever since the legendary partnership between Andres Iniesta and Xavi was broken.
The demands in these roles are high, especially given the possession-oriented style that has always been their biggest strength. The midfielders are expected to not only control the game but do so with panache.
The Catalans have always valued results as highly as the means to earn them and prefer fluidity in their football over just the three points. Press-resistant midfielders capable of maintaining tempo and breaking through the lines with their array of passes are crucial to their success.
Ivan Rakitic, Paulinho, Denis Suarez, Andre Gomes and Arturo Vidal were tried in midfield to fill the void left by Xavi and Iniesta but none could replicate the effect the legendary duo had on a game.
Enter Arthur and Frenkie de Jong. The Brazilian midfielder joined the Spanish giants ahead of the 2018/19 season and instantaneously fit in. Arthur displayed traits that soon drew comparisons with Xavi.
De Jong joined Barcelona this summer after a break-out season with Ajax during which he played a pivotal role in their success. The Dutchman is just the sort of holding midfielder capable of facilitating Johann Cruyff’s philosophy, making him a perfect fit at a club like Barcelona.
The Dutchman is versatile having spent time at Ajax deployed as a centre-back before he stamped his authority in midfield. De Jong was not just a defensive screen but an integral part of the attack, orchestrating his side’s build-up play.
The 22-year-old’s range as a midfielder continued to grow as he honed his ability to advance the ball either with the incisive passes or dribbles through the middle.
There was a lot of anticipation over how these two players would perform together in the same system. It was not until Barcelona’s La Liga tie against Valencia on Saturday that the duo would make a first starting appearance in the line-up.
One game is definitely not a large enough sample size but the signs at Camp Nou were incredibly promising. De Jong scored, assisted and registered 53 passes without misplacing a single one. He also completed all three of the dribbles he attempted to cap off a Man of the Match performance.
Arthur earned an assist and maintained a passing accuracy of 96 per cent, misplacing just three of the 69 passes he attempted. But the Brazilian’s impact transcends numbers. He played a crucial role in maintaining the tempo against a pressing Valencia side. His immense control in midfield allowed De Jong to play more progressively.
Lionel Messi will be relieved to find that the duo managed five key-passes against Valencia. This means that the creative burden will be eased off the Argentine when the two midfielders feature. And Messi, freed from the shackles of having to drop deep too often can focus on being more dangerous in the final third.
Individually, De Jong and Arthur can’t be compared to Xavi and Iniesta based on quality but their chemistry does bear shades of the one the former midfielders enjoyed in years gone by.
The duo could bring back the dominance in midfield that Barcelona have been famous for and take them a step closer to moving on from that famous Xavi-Iniesta midfield era.
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?
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.