Tue, Sep 30, 2014 - Page 18 News List

In form Barcelona facing first major test in France

AFP, PARIS

Barcelona face their first big test of the Luis Enrique era when they meet Paris Saint-Germain in the French capital in the Champions League today.

The Catalans looked sluggish in the 1-0 win against APOEL that opened their Group F campaign two weeks ago, but they travel to France having won six and drawn one of seven matches altogether this season, and are yet to concede a single goal under their new coach.

Their performance in tearing apart Granada in La Liga on Saturday last week, when Neymar scored a hat-trick and Lionel Messi netted twice in a 6-0 victory, would have made for ominous viewing for anyone with PSG connections.

“At the moment, I don’t see any player who isn’t capable of putting in a good performance in Paris and that for me is an advantage,” said Enrique, who welcomes Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba back into his squad for the match at the Parc des Princes after both were rested against Granada.

That duo are both almost certain to start in a meeting of the two favorites to progress to the last 16 from the section, while there is no question of Messi — the only player to have started all seven games for Barca this season — being rested yet.

“I prefer to see him on the pitch until the last minute to press and participate in our collective play,” the coach said. “The temptation is there, it could happen at any point in the season, but his habitat is on the field.”

The biggest doubt surrounds who will start in goal, with Claudio Bravo having kept a clean sheet in all six domestic games so far while fellow summer recruit Marc-Andre ter Stegen was preferred against APOEL.

Either way, the newly watertight Barcelona defense will expect to endure a tough evening in the first meeting of the clubs since the quarter-final clash in April last year, when Paris came away with a draw in both legs, but were eliminated on away goals.

Since then, Carlo Ancelotti has been replaced in the PSG dugout by Laurent Blanc, who played alongside Luis Enrique at Camp Nou for a season in the 1990s.

PSG, like their opponents, are still unbeaten in the current campaign, but all the pressure will be on Blanc, whose side are yet to convince this season and yet will be expected to take the game to Barca in front of their own fans.

Paris might already be a European superpower in financial terms, but now they crave real success on the continent after being eliminated from the Champions League at the quarter-final stage in each of the past two seasons.

Meanwhile, a lack of motivation for the less glamorous challenges in store in Ligue 1 has been suggested by some as the reason for their sluggish recent displays, but a run of four draws in their past five matches includes a 1-1 stalemate at Ajax in their Group F opener.

On Saturday, Blanc rotated his squad and tried out a new formation against Toulouse, but was only rewarded with another 1-1 stalemate.

“We are aware that last season we dominated the league and this year, with the same team and the same coach, we are not winning matches so easily,” Blanc said.

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