After a hard-fought win over Levante at the weekend, Barcelona take on Eintracht Frankfurt in what promises to be a season-defining clash.
The Blaugranes are not a side usually associated with trophyless seasons, and the Europa League is their only chance to avoid that situation this year.
The first leg took place in Germany last week. Though Barcelona were expected to cruise past the Bundesliga side, Eintracht put a lot of pressure on the visitors and dominated proceedings for long spells in the game.
The clash ended in a 1-1 stalemate, and there is everything to play for at Camp Nou tonight. Barcelona are undoubtedly the favourites to proceed as they have the home advantage on the night.
Yet, only a fool would write off a side with Eintracht’s quality. Here are three talking points ahead of the second leg at Camp Nou.
1. Injury-forced XI
In recent seasons, Barcelona have not had a clear gala XI that the manager could trust blindly in big games. Even under Ronald Koeman, the midfield seemed to be disorganised, and there was no identity in the forward line.
However, Xavi seems to have identified the players whom he trusts in the full-strength lineup. Unsurprisingly, all his rotations have been centred around the same blueprint.
Pedri and Frenkie de Jong were given breaks in the last two games to keep them fresh for the Europa League clash on Thursday. It goes unsaid that the duo will start in midfield on the night alongside Sergio Busquets.
Gavi is expected to start on the bench, but will have a vital role as a substitute.
The problem lies at right-back, for the manager will be without the services of both Dani Alves and Sergino Dest against the Germans.
In their absence, Xavi will turn to Ronald Araujo, who did a phenomenal job in containing Filip Kostic in the first leg. Jordi Alba will continue to cover the left-back position.
Gerard Pique has been included in the squad list but is yet to receive medical clearance. With his availability under a cloud of doubt, Clement Lenglet could partner Eric Garcia in defence.
It goes without saying that central defence is where the Catalans look the weakest. Barcelona conceded three penalties against Levante with a similar defensive line, and one hopes the same does not repeat on Thursday.
In attack, the trio of Ousmane Dembele, Ferran Torres, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be back in action.
2. The post-international break blues
After Barcelona demolished Real Madrid before the international break, the fear was that a long hiatus would hinder the team’s momentum. Fast forward three weeks, and that is exactly what has unfolded.
The Catalans have struggled to dominate their opponents the same way as before after El Clasico. Though they managed to secure wins over Sevilla and Levante, they were made to work hard for the wins.
The football has not been as free-flowing, nor the forwards as clinical in front of goal. The shaky defence and Gerard Pique’s injury have not helped Xavi’s case either.
The same points can be seen in statistics too. In their last four games before the international break, Barcelona had created 18 big chances. However, they have only managed to create seven in the three games after it.
Going up against an Eintracht Frankfurt side that caused numerous problems just last week, Barcelona will look to return to their groove.
3. Filip Kostic: the menace maker
The Serbian international was widely proclaimed as the Germans’ best player ahead of last week’s Europa League clash. When the two sides met, he did not disappoint.
In the first leg, Kostic provided three key passes for his team and had 66 touches. He recorded one shot on target and two blocked shots against Xavi’s side with three dribble attempts. Moreover, he scored a goal in Eintracht’s weekend game against SC Freiburg.
With no natural right-back to provide defensive cover, Barcelona must beware of the Serbian’s technical prowess. Kostic is the main creative outlet for the Bundesliga side and will look to put on a show on Thursday night.