The spectre of being eliminated 7-0 by FC Bayern München in last season's traumatic semi-final is the backdrop to FC Barcelona's intense desire to put things right in the UEFA Champions League this term. Now with the added interest of their first Argentinian coach since FIFA World Cup winner César Luis Menotti in 1983, the task for the incoming Gerardo Martino was to draw the utmost out of experienced but ageing stalwarts like Xavi Hernández and Carles Puyol, cope when Lionel Messi's injury problems impacted again and encourage the unveiling of Neymar's newly signed skills.
Story so far
Although retaining their Liga title in the face of a resurgent challenge from the city of Madrid would always loom heavily over 2013/14, the fact Barcelona have been beaten semi-finalists six times and tournament winners three times since 2000 – added to that Bavarian humiliation last spring – indicates how significant the UEFA Champions League is to Camp Nou executives, players and fans.
Moreover, the draw blessed them with the opportunity to pit themselves against Celtic FC, who famously defeated them at Parkhead last term, and a first competitive meeting with AFC Ajax. Indeed, that debut visit to Amsterdam brought Martino's first reverse in all competitions, as late as 26 November, while it took dogged performances to secure four points from trips to Glasgow and Milan.
However, 13 goals and some sparkling football in Camp Nou victories against all their rivals marked the Catalans down as serious knockout round opponents for whoever drew them. The heavily Spanish-influenced Manchester City FC, it transpired.
Unquestionably in Glasgow. Neil Lennon's side played with equal, if not more, intelligence and energy than in winning this fixture 2-1 last season. Víctor Valdés's goal came under something of an onslaught and, with Messi injured, Martino was looking around for solutions. He found them with the introduction of Alexis Sánchez and the team's new tactic of occasionally playing longer, earlier passes.
Neymar has usually been the target of these sometimes controversial tactics. At Celtic Park he drew a pass down, held it, served Alexis on the right and the ensuing headed goal from Cesc Fàbregas came out of the 'extremely difficult to execute but highly gratifying to score' category. Three precious away points.
Key player: Lionel Messi
Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Neymar and Valdés all have claims. Yet it is testimony to his extraordinary powers and influence on this club that, despite playing just three times in Group H, it must be Messi. Six goals in those 270 minutes, one of them the equaliser in Milan on a pitch Barça were not enjoying and against a Rossoneri side with their tails up, meant that by the time of his eventual lay-off the 26-year-old had scored sufficiently to guarantee the Spanish champions seven points.
Rising star: Neymar
How smoothly he has fitted in, seems remarkable considering it took him until matchday six to find his debut goal in the tournament. At 21, having changed continents and after a draining FIFA Confederations Cup, the Brazilian international has charmed everyone with his modest demeanour and impressed in the way he has harnessed what were, previously, slightly anarchic skills. Either playing wide left or deputising in what has become known as the 'false 9' role when Messi is injured, Neymar has been an electric hit, totalling ten goals and a handful of assists in all competitions. A star is born.
The number of times Messi has suffered muscle strains since pulling up injured in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes last spring. His latest muscle tear caused the forward to sit out the latter part of 2013, recuperating in Argentina, but in theory the Ballon D'Or holder will be back in top form well before the knockout rounds begin.
"The tempo of our play is increasing as the season develops. We have a new coach and step by step he's teaching us precisely what he demands of us. We are both taking hold of and applying his concepts. You can see that in our play."
Piqué gives the 'stay calm and keep on winning' message.
Next challenge: Manchester City FC
(Away: 18 February, home: 12 March)
As soon as Luís Figo paired his former employers with Manuel Pellegrini's rising Sky Blues side, the neutral football fan won the lottery. Given their current scoring rates this season, the teams are on target to have registered close to 200 goals between them on all fronts by the time they meet in February.
All over the pitch there are individual skill battles which tantalise, and either manager immediately announced of the opposition, "They won't be pleased at having drawn us." The principal task for both sets of back-room staff will be to use the coming weeks to get four main players – Messi, Sergio Aguëro, Pablo Zabaleta and Valdés – fit again. Roll on February.
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