Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi is in line to make his first start for the club in almost a month when they play host to Manchester City in the third round of the UEFA Champions League group stage on Wednesday.
The Argentina ace made his return from injury in Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of Deportivo La Coruna, scoring in a fixture that no doubt proved to manager Luis Enrique he’s ready for a full comeback in midweek.
Enrique experimented with three at the back in that league triumph, but it’s more than likely the Blaugrana tactician will resort back to the comfort of four in defence for the test of City.
Citizens chief Pep Guardiola will return to his former stomping ground four years after he departed Barca’s helm, and the Spaniard brings with him a squad that’s as close to full fitness as he’s had all season.
Read on for a preview ahead of Wednesday’s European tug-of-war, complete with all the essential viewing information to ensure you don’t miss a minute of what promises to be one of the season’s must-watch matchups.
Date: Wednesday, October 19
Time: 7:45 p.m. BST/2:45 p.m. ET
Venue: Camp Nou, Barcelona
Live Stream: BT Sport app (UK), beIN Sports Connect (US)
TV Info: BT Sport 2 (UK), beIN Sports 1 (US)
The bad news for Manchester City is Enrique has recovered the vast majority of his first string at just the right moment as they prepare for the Citizens’ visit, with Messi the headliner returning to action.
Bleacher Report’s Rik Sharma noted Andres Iniesta was also rested for the visit of Depor on Saturday, while centre-back Samuel Umtiti is also back fit after seeing out that fixture on the bench:
Wonder if that's a 3-4-3 for Barcelona with Digne and Rafinha wing-backs. Iniesta rested, Messi and Umtiti on bench after injury
Jordi Alba is also contending for a return to fitness in time for the visit of City after ESPN FC’s Samuel Marsden reported the left-back would be pushing for his place following injury:
Jordi Alba out for 10 days. Will miss Depor game, should be back for Man City.
Javier Mascherano could keep his spot alongside Gerard Pique after playing 90 minutes at the weekend, but Umtiti is another option to come in alongside Spain’s premier central defender.
The good news for City boss Guardiola is captain Vincent Kompany played his first minutes of the Premier League season in Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Everton. Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher noted the Belgian’s unusual comeback:
Best thing of the day wasn't tactics & formations but Kompany going up front for the last few minutes and Man City going long!!!! #TikiTaka
Fabian Delph has been on the treatment table since August and won’t be expected back for the Barca trip, while right-back Bacary Sagna hasn’t featured in three weeks and could miss the clash.
Also in line to start in Catalonia is City striker Sergio Aguero, who sent a message to Argentina team-mate Lionel Messi ahead of the clash, per Spanish newspaper Sport:
All we can hope is that he has a bad day and our defence plays the game of its life. It’s that difficult because Leo is the best in the world.
Playing against Messi will be something special. We are the same nationality and we are friends too. For that reason I didn’t want to to get Barcelona in the draw but sometimes fate plays a part and there’s nothing you can do.
Nigerian prodigy Kelechi Iheanacho could be the man who drops out of Guardiola’s XI in order for Aguero to come back in, although it’s possible the manager may give them a rare chance starting alongside one another.
There’s no understating Kompany’s timely return to the fray, however, and he could partner either John Stones or Nicolas Otamendi in defence at the Camp Nou.
Guardiola underlined his captain’s importance to the team when heading back to his roots, per James Robson of the Manchester Evening News: “I need him. We need him. Today, it’s tough. Every season is tougher. There are more games and more intensity, it is more demanding, and there is more pressure on the players.”
Neymar notched two assists against Depor while Luis Suarez got on the scoresheet, and Kompany’s presence could be an essential factor in stopping a relentless MSN front three.
Predicted Barcelona Lineup (4-3-3): Marc-Andre ter Stegen; Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti; Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets; Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar
Predicted Manchester City Lineup (4-2-3-1): Claudio Bravo; Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov, John Stones, Vincent Kompany; Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan; David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling; Sergio Aguero
Guardiola’s return to the Camp Nou will steal a major portion of the headlines ahead of Wednesday’s titanic encounter, bringing goalkeeper Claudio Bravo with him as the pair head back to their old home.
The Spanish tactician’s phenomenal record with the Catalan giants is well-founded, and the Champions League Twitter account recently celebrated Guardiola’s sensational silverware record during his four-year Barca spell:
Guardiola as Barca coach (2008–2012) #UCL 🏆🏆 Liga 🏆🏆🏆 Copa del Rey 🏆🏆 UEFA Super Cup 🏆🏆 Spanish Super Cup 🏆🏆🏆 Club World Cup 🏆🏆 https://t.co/KOQHQIZgSw
One could well argue Enrique has taken the team onto even bigger things since Guardiola’s departure, however, and squad fitness will play a huge part in deciding who emerges triumphant in the first group meeting.
This fixture will also hold a special significance to Messi, who comes into the clash just after celebrating the 12-year anniversary of his first-team debut with the reigning La Liga champions:
12 years ago today, Leo #Messi made his #Barca debut. 7 months later he got on the scoresheet for the first time 🔥 https://t.co/ahwzRbMbyW
It’s obvious whichever of these two teams fares better in their head-to-head encounters will most likely end up topping Group C, and City can ill afford to drop more points following their 3-3 draw at Celtic.
Barca already hold a two-point advantage over second-placed City after two rounds of the group phase, and a third-successive pool victory would see the Blaugrana take a commanding lead with games to spare.