The Champions League draw is done and the path to the finals has now been laid, revealing that Barça will have to face some of Europe’s top pedigree at every stage if they are to reach the final. How do things look for the Catalans?
The whole world anxiously looked on as Paulo Sousa drew ball after ball at the UEFA headquarters at Nyon. Both club representatives and fans around the world watched alike, from the comfort of their localities. With every ball drawn, the framework of the mega event grew clearer and clearer. As always, the Champions League draw lived up to the astronomical expectations it is often associated with. For the neutral football fan, there are some dazzling fixtures scheduled for the next month. Things for Barcelona though don’t look very promising.
A novel format of the Champions League
The world has been going through extremely difficult times. Every country has had to face the brunt of this devastating pandemic. Amid all the chaos, the UEFA along with the cooperation from the national football federations worked out a formula to keep European football going. It was never going to possible to play it with complete normalcy.
After the Champions League draw, Barcelona already know how their path to the trophy looks like | Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images
The committee decided to conduct the entire Champions League in a 12-day event in August. With international travel not being as facile as before, the entire tournament from the quarter-finals stage will be conducted in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. Unlike the trademark two-legged fixtures that the Champions has been known for, this year the games will only be single-legged. Go big or go home!
A massive boost to Barcelona, however, is that the second leg of the round of 16 fixture against Napoli will be played at the Camp Nou. The other changes announced include a maximum of five substitutions at three intervals in the game, and an extra substitution permitted in the event of extra time.
Reliving Barcelona’s run so far
It has been a fairly long while since the glorious Champions League anthem rattled through the stands of stadiums across the world. After a five-month long hiatus, the competition returns and it is necessary to know how Barcelona got where they are.
The Catalans were initially drawn into Group F alongside Inter Milan, Borrusia Dortmund and Slavia Prague. It was certainly the most difficult group on paper, and the fixtures testified. The blaugranas remained unbeaten throughout the group stage, winning four of their six fixtures. They pulled out some stunning displays like the 3–1 win over Borrusia Dortmund at home. At the same time, there were some not so pretty fixtures, particularly the goalless home draw with Slavia Prague. Barcelona finished at the top of the group.
At the round of 16 draw, the European giants found themselves drawn against Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli. The first leg at the city of Naples was an enthralling night of football. Antoine Griezmann’s precious away goal cancelled out Dries Mertens’ opener before Arturo Vidal was sent off in the 89′. After the 1–1 at the Stadio San Paolo, both teams prepare to face each other on Saturday 8 August at 21:00 CET for the second leg.
The all-important second leg
The Champions League path from the quarter-finals for Barcelona looks to be a doozy. But it is all based on one assumption: that they overcome the test against Napoli at the Camp Nou. The San Paolo Stadium in Naples witnessed an extraordinary night of football with both the home side and their Spanish guests taking part in a gritty battle. Barcelona came back home with an all-important away goal scored by their star signing from the summer, Antoine Griezmann.
“First we must focus on beating Napoli. We will play at home, which is fair. It’s good to know our future opponents”
SSC Napoli currently sit sixth in the Serie A, and are on a good run of form. They took down the mighty Juventus in the final of the Coppa Italia to take home the silverware. It would certainly be foolish of the azulgranas to take Gattuso’s men lightly. They will also be without the services of Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal, through suspension, and Martin Braithwaite, who isn’t registered to play in European contest. The game at the Camp Nou will be a test of strength, both physical and mental. All that can be said right now is that Barça do not have their ticket to Lisbon yet.
The team that comes on top at the Camp Nou has been drawn against the victor of the clash between Bayern Munich and Chelsea.
After the first leg at Stamford Bridge in February, Bayern Munich hold a three-goal lead over Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. More importantly, a three-away-goal lead. In the Champions League, the first rule is to never write a team off. Chelsea on their day can rip through opposition defences with their combination of talented youth and experience. However, the chance of that happening is bleak indeed.
With the domestic double sealed, Bayern Munich now aim at the second treble in their history | Photo by Michael Sohn / Pool via Getty Images
The Bundesliga and DFB Pokal champions have all eyes set on the treble. After an extremely rusty start to the campaign and a managerial change in the process, they look in better form than ever. With manager Hans-Dieter Flick they are unbeaten in their last 26 games across all competitions. The team has been scoring goals at free will, with Robert Lewandowski enjoying one of his most stellar seasons to date.
Barcelona’s recent history at the European stage has not been very pleasant. Facing a team so high in confidence would be a difficult hurdle to get past. There is no doubt that the team has the quality, but do they have the mindset to see them past the German champions? No doubt, it will be a very difficult hurdle to get past. Nevertheless, it is only 90 minutes of football that decides the fate of a team. Neither side can be written off.
The victor of quarter-final 3 find themselves drawn up against the winner of quarter-final 1.
The first quarter-final tie of the Champions League will be played between the winners of the Manchester City vs Real Madrid and Juventus vs Olympique Lyonnais. A battle of the giants indeed. As things stand, Man City has a 2–1 lead over Los Blancos, with captain Sergio Ramos suspended for the return leg at the Etihad Stadium. One would expect Pep Guardiola’s side to go through, but Zinedine Zidane’s men can never be written off.
Elsewhere, Juventus, who haven’t been in the best form themselves lately, are a goal down against Olympique Lyonnais. It is anyone’s game to win, and thus it is difficult to make any prediction.
Pep Guardiola looks to win his first Champions League title since leaving Barcelona | Photo by Ángel Martínez via Getty Images
If Barcelona makes it to the semi-final, they could face any of the four clubs, all of them steep mountains to climb. Manchester City has been rejuvenated since the return of football, even seeing off Premier League champions Liverpool in a dominant 4–0 victory. Real Madrid have not dropped a point since the return of football and have virtually sealed the La Liga title for the season.
Juventus have been in quite a poor form, and haven’t hit their stride yet, but expect them to stand up and deliver when it matters. Underdogs Lyon are always a low key threat. A physical side that knows how to soak up pressure and hit on the counter, exactly the type of team Barcelona often loathe.
On the other half of the draw are Atlético de Madrid, Atalanta, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig. The favourites to reach the finals may indeed be the kings of France PSG, who have a relatively easy route to the finals, at least compared to the other bracket.
At the same time, this could also be the year of redemption for Diego Pablo Simeone. After a rather underwhelming season, Atlético de Madrid found their stride after annihilating Champions League winners Liverpool in their own backyard. They are undoubtedly the dark horses to this year’s trophy.
Barcelona’s recent history in the Champions League has not been very charming for its supporters. If an easy draw is what culeé were hoping for, it is most certainly not what they wanted. If Barça are to lift the trophy this year, it will be a long and gruelling path. Every hurdle gets bigger than the previous one. With the topmost European sides waiting for the Catalans at every step, a captivating journey begins. It is most certainly not impossible, but it will need a herculean effort which the team is certainly capable of.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.