After defeat to Malaga at the weekend the Champions League might be Barcelona’s best chance of winning a major trophy this season. They don’t have time to feel sorry for themselves though as tonight they come up against a side who are desperate to prove they can dominate in Europe. Juventus are the kings of Italy but haven’t won a European Cup for 21 years. It’s far too long for a team of the stature of Juventus. In that same time period Barcelona have won four Champions League titles.
The last time these two clubs met was back in 2015 for the Champions League final. Ivan Rakitic gave Barcelona an early lead but despite getting back on level terms through Alvaro Morata, the day belonged to the Catalan giants. Luis Suarez and Neymar put the result beyond doubt and Juventus were made to wait even longer for their European drought to end.
With questions being raised over the quality of this Barcelona team I thought it’d be a good idea to compare the current first eleven and the one which started the 2015 final.
Goalkeeper – Marc-Andre ter Stegen 
The German international was very much second choice in LaLiga but started every Champions League tie back in the 2014/15 season. He kept six clean sheets in 13 appearances and was generally a safe pair of hands between the sticks.
However I’d give the current ter Stegen the nod. He isn’t perfect, and errors make better headlines, but he’s been a superb shot-stopper this term. There’s a maturity to his play now the number one shirt belongs solely to him. It’s worth remembering that ter Stegen is still only 24 years old but if he’s to become a great he’ll need to improve on his leadership skills.
Right Back – Dani Alves 
There’s no debate to be had here. Dani Alves is arguably one of the best full backs in the history of football. His departure for tonight’s opponents Juventus is still felt in the current squad as no one has come close to replacing him. Alves is a lot more intelligent than people give him credit for as he knew when to attack but also how to defend. So many modern full backs seem only capable of one aspect but not the other.
Sergi Roberto tried to fill the shoes of Alves but ultimately failed. The inability to replace Alves means Barcelona are likely to field a back three as opposed to a traditional four.
Centre Back – Gerard Pique 
It’s easy to dismiss the quality of Gerard Pique simply because you don’t like him. He doesn’t care about popularity contests and wears his heart on his sleeve. This creates as much hate as it does love but there’s no denying he’s one of the best defenders around. In 2015 he was a rock alongside Javier Mascherano in the heart of the defence.
However, unlike with ter Stegen, I’d give the nod to the past version of Pique. In terms of quality I don’t think there’s a huge difference but in 2015 he was arguably the best centre back in the world. This season Luis Enrique has opted to rest Pique and the team drops a level or two without him. Still a very, very good defender though.
Centre Back – Samuel Umtiti 
As mentioned in the previous part it was Mascherano who lined up alongside Pique back in 2015. He was solid, nothing more, but since then has gradually declined. He creates more errors than he used to and in the absence of Pique he doesn’t look comfortable. In 2015 he was a good defender but doesn’t quite get into this team.
Samuel Umtiti is the only new recruit to come out of this season in a positive light. The former Lyon player displays a natural understanding of the game and makes the team become a lot stronger. He’s 23 now but looks like someone who has played for Barcelona all his life. A much safer bet than Mascherano.
Left Back – Jordi Alba 
The biggest issue with Jordi Alba is his swashbuckling style looks great when the team is dominating and picking up wins for fun but when they aren’t, he’s a liability. Much like Alves on the right, he’s more renown for his attacking traits and often acts like a second winger. Yet where he falls down in comparison is when it comes to the defensive side of things.
This season he’s become worse, or more exposed. Without as much protection from midfield, which we’ll get on to soon, the holes in his game are easier to see. Luis Enrique’s switch to a back three left him without a role to play. He’s still a good full back but he feels less reliable than he did a couple of years ago.
Defensive Midfield – Sergio Busquets 
It feels strange to say this but I still believe Sergio Busquets is largely, to steal a word from Adam Bate, ‘underpraised’. Everyone knows that Busquets is a quality player but when people name their best teams his name is often missing. Perhaps due to the modern culture of judging players on stats he doesn’t get the true recognition he deserves. Busquets doesn’t score or assist goals. He does the dirty work – and does it very, very well.
In saying that I’d much rather have the Busquets of two years ago in my side. The new midfield combinations and the previous system exposed some flaws in his game we hadn’t seen before. In recent weeks he’s improved but even still, you sense he’s lost a step or two. In 2015 he was a colossus and for that reason, that version of Busquets gets the nod.
Andres Iniesta – Centre Midfield 
In a similar vein to Busquets we’re beginning to see a noticeable decline in Andres Iniesta this season. That isn’t to say he’s no longer a good player because he most certainly is, just not as good as he once was. Injuries have disrupted his current campaign and he’s at a stage, like Xavi Hernandez in 2015, where he needs protecting. Almost like a star attraction saved for the biggest shows.
The Iniesta we saw in the previous match up against Juventus was that little bit quicker, that little bit fitter, and gets the spot in the team. For all the money Barcelona have spent this summer they’ve failed to lighten the burden on Iniesta which doesn’t help anyone.
Ivan Rakitic – Centre Midfield 
The scorer of the first goal in that Champions League final has to go in here. The other options you have are Andre Gomes, Arda Turan, Denis Suarez or even Ivan Rakitic from this season. The impact the Croatian made in his first season for the club was significant and he became a key fixture in the starting eleven in all competitions. It’s worth remembering Xavi Hernandez did make an appearance in the 2015 final but wasn’t at his peak.
This season Rakitic was marginalised for a while – although has now played 500 minutes more than Andre Gomes – but hasn’t quite hit the heights of previous campaigns. There was talk of a fall out with Luis Enrique but he did sign a new contract to quash talk of him leaving. The Rakitic which lit up the final added much needed energy to the midfield and when he isn’t available, Barcelona look considerably weaker.
Left Wing – Neymar 
Ignore the silly red card he picked up at the weekend and it’s plain to see the improvement in Neymar. We aren’t just talking goals and assists but overall influence on the side. With Lionel Messi moving more central and not having the energy to run at defences all day, that task has fallen to Neymar.
He scored the final goal against Juventus in 2015 and looked good throughout but this version of Neymar is even better. He sparked the epic comeback against Paris Saint Germain and for Barcelona to win the Champions League they need him to perform. Neymar is maybe as important as Messi right now.
Striker – Luis Suarez 
Another scorer in that 2015 final was Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan had to wait to make his Barcelona debut in the 2014/15 season because he needed to serve a suspension for biting Juventus’ Giorgio Chiellini. The Italian defender didn’t play in the final due to injury and that allowed Suarez to prod home a rebound.
Now while that Suarez was younger and hungrier [sorry] the Suarez we see now is on another level altogether. He can be frustrating at times when he misses ‘easy’ chances but he’s also involved in everything special Barcelona produce. So much of what he does can’t be replicated or taught, you either have the ability or you don’t. For me he’s the best striker in the world right now – and has been since he arrived in Spain.
Right Wing – Lionel Messi 
This is tough one, arguably the toughest of the lot. The current Lionel Messi is still phenomenal and is as dangerous as ever. With 11 goals he’s already beaten his goal tally from 2014/15’s Champions League campaign . Yet for all moments of magic you feel like this Barcelona side, in it’s current state, depends too much on him. The bursts of energy are less frequent but his ability on the ball remains the same. He’s unique, special, one of a kind.
However I’d pick the 2015 version of Messi for this team. I loved seeing the all-action Messi who would drop deep and terrify defenders whenever he was given a yard of space to run in to. The nice touches and impossible passes remain as frequent as ever but a more mobile Messi is a more dangerous Messi. Both versions are incredible feats of nature though.
Barcelona’s 2015 side: 7
Barcelona’s current side: 4