Barcelona will travel to Portugal today as they look to lock horns against Porto for round two of their UEFA Champions League group stages.
Coming off a 1-0 win against Sevilla, courtesy of an own goal by none other than Sergio Ramos, Barcelona are yet to lose a game across the UCL and the league so far this season, winning seven games out of nine, and drawing two — 0-0 vs Getafe, and 2-2 vs Mallorca.
However, it is clear that several players in the squad are not at their very best due to a very congested schedule of fixtures. Several players have also been sidelined for weeks on end, including Frenkie de Jong and Raphinha most recently.
One player who seems to have lost a bit of pace over the last weeks is Oriol Romeu. The Spaniard started the season brilliantly, and was an undisputed starter for Xavi as the defensive midfielder, but has been running into trouble over the last couple of games.
His performance against Mallorca, especially, was noteworthy for all the wrong reasons, as he was hooked at the hour-mark for Fermin Lopez.
Javi Miguel, therefore, reports that Romeu’s participation against Porto is unclear. The 32-year-old may start on the bench once again, with Ilkay Gundogan as the no. 6.
The German put in a solid shift in that role against Sevilla on the weekend, and could be asked to replicate it as Barça look for more control against a team known for deadly counter-attacks.
With Pedri and de Jong out injured, Gundogan will have Fermin Lopez and Gavi in front of him as central midfielders.
Benching Romeu a correct decision? BU’s take
Porto are experts in transitions, with the likes of Mehdi Taremi and Wenderson Galeno expected to run riots if given enough time and space.
Playing without an athletic or defensive solid pivot in this game could prove to be costly for Barcelona.
While Gundogan is undoubtedly one of the smartest players in the world, he will find it difficult to defend up against a side that sits deep and attacks through the wings.
Further, with both Joao Cancelo and Alejandro Balde expected to start, Barcelona will have little to no extra cover on the flanks. Romeu’s mobility and defensive aptitude could be the differential in a tie like this.
Starting Gundogan in an advanced role is the best solution for all Xavi, as the veteran is a master of third-man runs. That, coupled with his vision in the final third sounds like a solution to penetrate Porto’s low block.