A potential berth in the Round of 16 is on the line as Barcelona host BATE Borisov in Wednesday’s Group E Champions League match at Camp Nou. It's an impressive and expected achievement for the Spanish titans as they seek their 22nd consecutive trip to the knockout stage, but it's a particularly strong accomplishment this season.
The Catalans could have crumbled without injured star Lionel Messi over the last six weeks, but they have won both their group matches in his absence. Meanwhile, Neymar and Luis Suarez have helped prop Barcelona up to second in La Liga behind Real Madrid, with goal differential separating the two sides.
Luis Enrique’s side own a three-point advantage over Bayer Leverkusen for first in the group, and should Barcelona claim victory and Leverkusen fall to Roma, the defending champions would claim the group.
"Our first aim is to qualify and as we are the defending champions, we want to do so as first of our group," Enrique said to the team’s official website. "Especially because we want to send a message to the other teams that we are ready.
"But before we send that message, we need to achieve those points and we will face adversity."
Suarez has notched seven goals in the last eight matches, and Neymar has fired off six goals and five assists in the last five, including one score in the most recent 2-0 La Liga victory over Getafe.
Both will have to keep up that production for a little while longer. Messi is not expected to return from a damaged internal collateral ligament in his left knee until early December, and he’s likely to miss El Clasico.
But the Catalans have more than stayed afloat in the Argentine’s absence, winning five of their last seven matches, including their last date with Belarus side BATE on Oct. 20, 2-0.
Manager Alyaksandr Yermakovich’s side tried to slow Barcelona down with rough fouls, 20 in total, but instead were served six yellow cards and had no answer for Neymar’s two assists to midfielder Ivan Rakitic for the match's only goals.
But the first-place Belarus club have just as much on the line as the Catalans. They’re currently one point back of Leverkusen in the standings, and an upset would leave the group wide open for BATE and the rest of the competitors.
A bit of payback could be in order as well, with BATE suffering just their second loss of the season across all competitions to the Catalans. Otherwise the high-scoring tandem of forward Vitali Rodionov and midfielder Igor Stasevich led BATE to a 10th straight title with a 12-point lead atop the domestic table and 15 combined goals.
"Barca gave us a football masterclass in our first game," Yermakovich said to reporters. "They showed us how to attack and how to play once you lose the ball. We have to learn more, much more."
But BATE have yet to translate their success on the international front. Their 3-2 victory over Roma on Sept. 29 is the only win for BATE in the competition since they made it to the group stage, but they’ve been limited to one goal and were handed two losses by Barcelona and Leverkusen.
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