Group H action returns this Wednesday as Barcelona travel to face Belarusian champions BATE Borisov, in what will be the Catalan’s inaugural trip to the tiny nation. Fresh from a 5-0 mauling of Atlético Madrid, Barcelona will look to take advantage of the gulf in class between the two sides to banish memories of the 2-2 draw with AC Milan on match day one, a game that highlighted the defensive shortcoming that have plagued the Spanish champions so far this season. The return to fitness of Gerard Piqué is offset by mounting losses in the midfield and up front, with Andrés Iniesta, Alexis Sánchez and Ibrahim Afellay all sidelined with various injuries. Nonetheless, the Catalan side will be aiming for an emphatic win on Wednesday with an eye towards securing top spot in the group before their trip to the San Siro in November.
BATE Borisov have made a solitary appearance in the Champions League group stage to date, finishing rock bottom in the 2008/2009 edition of the tournament in a group that included Real Madrid, Juventus and Zenit St. Petersburg. No doubt ashen faced at being drawn against the Spanish and Italian champions, a 1-1 draw with fellow minnow’s Viktoria Plzen on match day one has ensured that all four teams in Group H sit even on points. Could there yet be a glimmer of hope for the pride of Belarus? It seems unlikely. A more realistic goal would be the third place parachute into the Europa League, or whatever Platini and his marketing team are calling it these days.
Barcelona, meanwhile, should be looking to reassert themselves in the tournament after their draw against AC Milan on match day one. Teams that face the Catalans when they have something to prove usually fare poorly; just ask Osasuna. The main area of focus for the Blaugrana will likely be the back four, or three as things have stood lately. Saturday’s triumph over Atlético Madrid saw the new 3-4-3 formation shift back to the more familiar 4-3-3 after halftime, with the introduction of the now-fit Piqué adding a defensive boost. I said it before the Milan game, and I’ll say it again: Sergio Busquets cannot play in defense. Bless his heart he tries, but the lanky midfielder from Sabadell doesn’t have the speed to keep up with opposition strikers, as we saw in the Camp Nou.
Luckily, it doesn’t appear as though he will need to. The aforementioned return of Gerard Piqué means that even if Guardiola starts with the new 3-4-3, which seems likely, a proper defender will start in the middle. I expect Piqué to be flanked by Mascherano and Abidal, with Busquets playing as a sort of bastardized sweeper between the midfield and defense. The middle should be pretty familiar at this point in the proceedings: Xavi will take up his usual place in the center, with Fàbregas out on the left wing. Will Dani Alves start on the right wing again? At first it seemed as though Pep had lost a training ground bet, but the flying Brazilian clearly enjoys it, and his mazy runs create space on the wings, so why not. A 3-4-3 opens up incredible amounts of space near the touchline, and as long as one has the pace to get back and defend when needed, it’s hard to counter. Opponents are forced to mark either the man on the flank or the man in the middle, and somebody gets neglected; one of those two men is usually Messi.
Speaking of La Pulga, it’s pretty hard to describe his current form without resorting to the tired superlatives that make television commentators seem like giddy school boys (really, how many times can you fit the word genius into a coherent sentence?). Let’s just say that he will line up alongside David Villa and Pedro, and all will bask in whatever he decides to do.
Predicted Starting XI: Valdés, Mascherano, Piqué, Abidal, Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas, Dani Alves, David Villa, Pedro, Messi
FC BATE Borisov
BATE Borisov host a team made up largely of homegrown players, with a pair of the requisite Brazilians that one encounters throughout the peripheries of Europe. The one surprise in the Belarusian lineup is journeyman striker Mateja Kežman, who was part of the Chelsea team that knocked out Barcelona in the round of 16 in the same competition in 2004/2005. How did the former Blues front man end up in Belarus? Almost by accident it would seem, with previous spells at Atlético Madrid, Fenerbaçe, Paris Saint-Germain, Zenit Saint Petersburg, and the South China Athletic Association of the Hong Kong first division. Well-travelled world scholar? Elaborate scheme to collect frequent flyer miles? It’s anyone’s guess.
If the previous matchup with Viktoria Plzen is anything to go by, and not having access to a lot of Belarusian league action I’m going to hope that it is, then we can expect to see a traditional 4-4-2 when BATE take the pitch Wednesday evening. Belarus Under-21 national keeper Aleksandr Gutor made a few fine saves on match day one, but the lone goal for Plzen was right out of the Barcelona playbook, so perhaps young Gutor may not look back on Wednesday night so fondly. The back four are made up of Marko Simic, Yegor Filipenko, Maksim Bordachev and Dzmitry Baha, who have a combined average age of twenty one years. Combined with the Catalans’ penchant for goal, things do not bode well for the side from Borisov.
Standout midfielder Filip Rudzik leads from the center of the pitch, and has a bit of European experience under his belt, having made his club debut against Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s Europa League. Edgar Olekhnovich, Mikhail Gordejchuck and Aliaksandr Valadzko round out the rest of the midfield, while the strike pair of Renan Bressan and the much travelled Kezman should start alongside each other up top. Bressan’s goal against the Czechs came after a fine bit of movement at the top of the box, and his finishing is clearly a strong point. If BATE manage to get the ball anywhere near the Catalan’s goal mouth, he could prove troublesome.
Predicted Starting XI: Aleksandr Gutor, Marko Simic, Yegor Filipenko, Maksim Bordachev, Dzmitry Baha, Filip Rudzik, Edgar Olekhnovich, Mikhail Gordejchuck, Aliaksandr Valadzko, Renan Bressan, Mateja Kežman
Barcelona should enter the match with a desire to inundate the opposition goal; in what is shaping up to be a battle for first place in the group against AC Milan, goal difference could prove decisive come December. Having scored fifteen goals in their last three matches, one would be hard pressed to find anyone outside of Belarus that’s willing to bet against the Catalans steamrolling over their smaller opposition. From a Belarusian perspective, the best hope of avoiding embarrassment will be to employ a zone marking scheme akin to that used by AC Milan. Man marking against Barcelona is a dangerous game, with defenders invariably dragged around the pitch, leaving large holes for Messi and friends to exploit. That being said, the 3-4-3 employed by coach Guardiola only works when everyone’s legs are fresh, and able to quickly get back to defend. A quick goal or two in the first half would allow a halftime switch back to the traditional 4-3-3 like during the Atlético Madrid game, and would also give Carles Puyol a chance to come on as a substitute to get back some match fitness. BATE Borisov will make a decent game out of things on the counter attack, but in the end should prove no trouble for a Barcelona side that are beginning to fire on all cylinders.
FC BATE Borisov 0-4 FC Barcelona
Image: AP Photo