There is always a sense of fear and trepidation when the mercurial genius that is Lionel Messi is sidelined, but although teams across La Liga and Europe are wise enough to know that Barcelona carry a serious threat, regardless of who Luis Enrique names in his starting line-up, we always have a slight doubt in our minds that things may not click without Messi.
This was particularly the case as the Blaugrana travelled to the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany to face a Borussia Monchengladbach side who have made an excellent start to their Bundesliga season. Although the same could not be said for their Champions League campaign after Die Fohlen fell to a 4-0 defeat against Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, Gladbach were not to be taken for granted in their own backyard. Our opponents, who currently sit fourth in the Bundesliga table, had won eleven straight games at the Stadion im Borussia-Park in all competitions before we strolled into town. Food for thought perhaps for Enrique and the boys, although it should be noted that Barcelona went into the game with their own superb run of form away from the Nou Camp; seven straight victories and twenty-six goals scored was perhaps why Betway fancied us as slight favourites in the football odds, but we had to make sure we put in a complete performance to see off Gladbach and make it six points from six in the Champions League.
German stadiums are renowned for creating an electric match day atmosphere, and this game was no different as the home fans got right behind their team in the best way possible. How Gladbach approached the first half took many by surprise, with Andres Iniesta revealing after the game that they expected Andre Schubert’s side to follow the same suit as recent home games and press Barca high up the pitch. Instead, they chose to sit back and restrict the space that Enrique’s men were allowed in attacking positions, and while we inevitably managed to create chances, it proved harder than the manager and players had originally planned and prepared for.
Neymar and Luis Suarez both had more than presentable opportunities to open the scoring for the Blaugrana, while Ivan Rakitic tested the home goalkeeper from long distance and Suarez failed to square the ball to Paco Alcacer when the Uruguayan star was well placed to shoot himself. Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who was facing his former club, had relatively little to do at the other end, but as is often the case in football, Gladbach took the lead from nowhere. The Germans broke after Sergio Busquests dallied on the ball and was dispossessed, ending up in Raffael playing the ball through to Mahmoud Dahoud who squared it to Thorgan Hazard to slot into an empty net. It turned out to be Gladbach’s only shot on target in the entire game…how you have to hate football sometimes. A fantastic volley from Suarez was kept out by Yann Sommer as Barcelona went into the break a goal down, with Gladbach doing a good job of making it difficult for us.
Enrique was stuck between a rock and a hard place – push more men forward and risk being caught on the counter, or simply step up the tempo and make the most of the opportunities when they come along. It was certainly not a night to be wasteful in front of goal, and although odds are that they’ll romp home with a victory in this weekend’s clash at Celta Vigo, staying top of Group C with a double header against Manchester City on the horizon was imperative. We began to prove why Betway made us favourite to make it two wins in two, with faster movement, tempo and intense pressing making it a matter of time before Gladbach cracked, despite keeping numerous men behind the ball. We are too used to that tactic by now, but the key is to unlock the door before it is too late.
Gladbach ultimately created their own downfall for the equaliser as they failed to clear the danger on at least two or three occasions, although we must say that Neymar’s ball over the defence was sublime. The lofted pass found its way to substitute Arda Turan who dispatched it high above Sommer with sumptuous ease in the 65th minute, and from that point onwards, Barcelona looked the only team that were going to win. And so it proved, although if the manner of the first goal was poor, the second just eight minutes later was criminal. Neymar’s cross following a short-taken corner found Suarez completely unmarked, and although his shot was straight at Sommer, the goalkeeper somehow fumbled it and allowed Gerard Pique to poke the ball home. It was a complete gift, but Barca deserved it for the change in emphasis after Rafinha and Arda Turan entered the game. The latter, in particular, made a big difference, with the Turkish star almost making it 3-1 with a sublime chip that was just tipped over the ball by Sommer. 2-1 was enough, but that would have been a suitable reward for the impact Arda Turan had on the game.
Barca march on in the Champions League without Messi, but while we may feel his absence in the first clash with Guardiola if the little Argentinian is not fit in time, the manner in which Enrique turned the game around with smart substitutions who really staked a claim for a place in the starting line-up bodes well for the future.