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Three talking points ahead of Barcelona vs Royal Antwerp | UEFA Champions League



Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images

The Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys has already witnessed some great games this season.

The stadium was unveiled as Barcelona’s temporary home ground for the season during the Joan Gamper Trophy clash against Tottenham Hotspur where the hosts mounted a sensational comeback win.

Barcelona’s first home game of the season then saw Cadiz pay a visit to Montjuic. The 2-0 scoreline on the night reflected a scrappy, yet promising win. Earlier this week, the team put five past a helpless Real Betis at the venue.

On Tuesday night, Estadi Lluis Companys will play host to its first UEFA Champions League game of the season as Barcelona take on Royal Antwerp.

The game will be the first of six group-stage matches for the Catalans as they hope to make it to the knockout for the first time in three years.

Barça Universal brings you three talking points ahead of Barcelona vs Royal Antwerp.

The real hunting ground

The UEFA Champions League has not harboured fancy memories for Barcelona or its supporters in recent seasons.

After the horrific nights in Rome, Anfield, and Lisbon, the Catalans hit a new low two years ago when they failed to make it out of the group stages. Drawn alongside Bayern Munich and Benfica, the Azulgrana dished out horror shows to lose three of their six group-stage games.

Last season was not much better. Xavi Hernandez’s men may have been crowned the champions of Spain, but their display in Europe was beyond horrific.

For the second time in as many years, they lost half their group-stage games and finished third behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.

Barcelona’s group in the 2023/24 iteration of the competition appears far easier. Yet, history is a testament that no opposition is small in the Champions League.

The Blaugranas are now well into Xavi’s system and methodology. Their squad is now one of the best in the world, and the academy players only sharpen their bleeding edge.

There are thus no excuses for Barcelona heading into the Champions League this time around. They must turn up the heat when it matters most and facilitate a deep run into the competition.

A tale of two systems

A lot to ponder for Xavi. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Xavi arrived at Barcelona as a strong advocate of the traditional 4-3-3 setup. He preferred the idea of deploying two natural wingers on either side to stretch the opposition’s defence.

A year and a half into his tenure, the manager has unsurprisingly had to tailor his system to fit the squad. Last season, he primarily opted for a 4-3-3 with Gavi playing as a false left-winger and only two forwards up front.

The modified system worked well for Barcelona last season, especially given the air-tight defence that did not concede many goals. However, it has always been clear that the team lacks initiative in the final third.

When Xavi deployed Joao Felix on the left wing against Real Betis earlier this week, that problem appeared solved. The Catalans were inspired in attack, with Alejandro Balde and Felix combining wonderfully to unlock defences and set Robert Lewandowski free.

The natural idea would be to adopt the new system tomorrow against Royal Antwerp. However, Felix’s inclusion would have to come at the cost of Gavi, Frenkie de Jong, or Ilkay Gundogan.

Will Xavi stick to his old guns or sacrifice a midfielder for an extra body in attack? The manager has a difficult choice to make.

An unexpected dilemma

Ousmane Dembele’s decision to leave Barcelona anti-climactically did not go down well in Catalonia. The Frenchman, at the time of his departure, was one of Xavi’s most trusted weapons and Barcelona’s main tool on the right wing.

One month later, it is clear that his exit was for the best. The Azulgranas now have three candidates voraciously battling for the starting spot on the right wing, all of whom are dedicated to the crest.

Raphinha is the first of the three candidates who even started Barcelona’s season-opener as the right winger. His unfortunate red card ruled him out of action for two games, but he came back with a bang against Los Verdiblancos scoring with almost his first touch.

Lamine Yamal, La Masia’s latest revelation, is the second contender. The 16-year-old has repeatedly shown to possess the maturity and skills to play at the highest level and has been Barcelona’s X-factor on the field for several games now.

The third name vying for a spot on the flank is Ferran ‘the Shark’ Torres. The Spaniard has returned to the new season with renewed mentality, perseverance, and form and has scored three goals in four games for Barcelona.

Most recently, he scored the team’s first free-kick goal since a certain Lionel Messi. All three players will have their parts to play in the long season ahead. Yet, it will be interesting to see whom Xavi opts to use in the first UCL game of the season.

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