Luis Enrique will make his Champions League debut as a coach when Barcelona begin their attempt to return to the pinnacle of the European game with a home encounter with Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia. After six straight semifinals, including twice becoming champions, Barcelona fell disappointingly at the quarterfinals stage of the Champions League last season to Atletico Madrid. Having also fallen short in La Liga in what was a difficult season for the club both on and off the pitch, Barcelona dispensed with coach Gerardo Martino and turned once more to one of their own. Following spells in charge of Roma and Celta Vigo, former Barcelona B coach and long time playing servant Enrique has made an encouraging start to life in charge of the Catalan club. Barcelona have won all three of their La Liga matches and have done so without conceding a goal for the first time since 1985.
“It’s a good time for this match to come about,” Enrique said of the meeting with APOEL, according to Spanish publication AS. “We have to improve certain things but we are ready. We have had a good start to the season. There are things that the team are very comfortable with. There will be moments when the results don’t come and we have to be ready for that.”
Enrique is set to make a number of changes to the side that beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 on Saturday, however. The former Spain international has decided to rest Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Martin Montoya. Dani Alves is back in contention, but Thomas Vermaelen remains unavailable due to injury, while fellow summer arrival Luis Suarez continues to serve his worldwide suspension. It means Enrique is likely to continue to hand chances to some of Barcelona’s young talent. Munir El Haddadi, who has started all three league games, Sandro Ramirez and Sergi Samper are all named in the squad.
The influence of Barcelona’s academy will extend far further than that young trio on Wednesday night, and indeed, even as far as the opposition. In goal for APOEL will be Urko Pardo, who came through the ranks at Barcelona and turned out for the B team before departing in 2007. Ironically, though, APOEL’s visit will be the first time he has ever played a competitive match at the Camp Nou. Yet, he insists that he and his team are arriving with far more on their minds than simply enjoying the occasion.
“We expect to get a good result, why not?” he told Barcelona’s official website. “We are coming as a quality unit and we want to try to balance the result. Like I said, we’ve got European experience and we’re confident we can get a good result at the Camp Nou.”
APOEL’s European history may not be rich, certainly not in comparison with their opponents, but they more than made their presence felt the last time they were in the Champions League proper. In 2011-12 they become the season’s Cinderella story by going all the way to the quarterfinals before falling to Real Madrid.
Prediction: Giorgos Donis’ APOEL side have six survivors from the squad that reached the last eight three seasons ago, but it is asking an awful lot for them to get close to matching that achievement, especially in a group that also contains Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax. APOEL struggled on their travels in the Europa League last season and are unlikely to return home with any points from the Camp Nou. Barcelona have begun the season strongly and, with Lionel Messi and Neymar combining impressively, they should get a comfortable win.
Barcelona 3-0 APOEL
Kickoff time: 2.45 p.m. ET
TV channel: ESPN Deportes