Barcelona had to make do with the narrowest of wins against Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia to get their quest to regain the Champions League underway. Gerard Piqué headed in Lionel Messi’s fine free-kick in the 28th minute at the Camp Nou but the hosts surprisingly failed to add to their advantage. APOEL, which captivated Europe during a run to the quarterfinals three seasons ago, again punched above their weight and frustrated the four-time European Cup winners.
Still, for Barcelona it as a fourth-straight win to begin the season and a fourth-straight cleansheet to boot. It has been a strong start for manager Luis Enrique and he will doubtless be pleased simply to mark his first match in Europe as a coach with a victory. Another mark of Enrique’s early reign at the Camp Nou has been his faith in the clubs’ younger players. And that continued on Wednesday, with Sergi Roberto starting alongside Sergi Samper in midfield and Munir El Haddadi lining up in attack. The latter two were making their European debuts, as was Sandro Ramirez when he came off the bench in the second half. There was also a first appearance for the club for German goalkeeper Mar-Andre ter Stegen in place of Claudio Bravo in goal. Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano, Martin Montoya and Pedro had all been left at home as Enrique tried to keep his squad fresh.
It took a set-piece, though, for Barcelona to get the breakthrough. With the ball set on the right flank, Messi produced a delightful in-swinging free-kick that was a nightmare for the APOEL defenders and an open invitation for his Barcelona teammates. Piqué seized upon the opportunity and directed a header into the bottom corner of the net from six yards out.
APOEL might have been expected to fade after that, but instead they continued to hold firm. When they did get through the visiting defense, Enrique’s men were frustrated by a graduate of Barcelona’s La Masia academy, Urko Pardo in goal. Pardo thwarted Messi before the interval and when he was beaten by Munir in the second half the offside flag was correctly raised. Marc Bartra made a smart block to deny Tomas De Vicenti in one of APOEL’s few attempts on the Barcelona goal. But even in injury time, the hosts continued to be denied the chance to make the win a more comfortable one, when Pardo saved from Neymar and then Messi saw his rebound effort blocked by a defender. It was a case of job done for Barcelona, but Enrique will know better is likely to be required when they visit Paris Saint-Germain, which opened up with a draw at Ajax, in two weeks’ time.