Barcelona's Luis Suarez and Neymar show continues in Borisov win
Three quick thoughts from Barcelona's 3-0 win versus BATE Borisov at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.
1. Another Suarez, Neymar show
Neymar and Luis Suarez were the joint stars of the show as Barcelona remained fully in control of Champions League Group E with an easy win over BATE Borisov.
As has happened so often since Barca talisman Lionel Messi was injured in late September, the team's other two attacking superstars did the damage. Neymar scored twice, Suarez netted once, and the pair put in performances that generally eclipsed everyone else on the pitch.
Neymar announced himself with an early driving run past three opponents that brought a free kick 25 yards out, which the Brazilian just barely missed. The opening stages also saw two scandalous reverse passes to free Suarez and Adriano Correia close to goal, but neither could take advantage.
When the scoreline was broken it was in more prosaic fashion, with Barca's No. 11 calmly sending goalkeeper Sergei Chernik the wrong way from the penalty spot after substitute Munir El-Haddadi had been hauled down in the area.
After the break Neymar was the provider, with a simple ball across for Suarez to wrong-foot his marker with his first touch, and then shoot early past Chernik from the edge of area.
The ex-Liverpool player almost made it 3-0 from a tight angle from the ex-Santos starlet's pass, before the roles were reversed late on when Suarez hared down the right wing and crossed unselfishly for Neymar to finish to the empty net. The chemistry between the pair was evident, and not just from their shared delighted celebrations.
Neymar now has eight goals and five assists in the eight matches since Messi limped off against Las Palmas. Suarez has nine goals and two assist across that time.
Barca will still want their main man back for the looming La Liga 'Clasico' at Real Madrid if possible, but his fellow South Americans have stepped up well.
2. More injury woe for Barca
Luis Enrique's team selection looked to be conditioned by the Clasico, with versatile youngster Sergi Roberto picked on the right wing, and fit-again club captain Andres Iniesta making his first game in over a month in midfield.
That plan lasted just over a quarter hour, as Ivan Rakitic sank to the Camp Nou turf holding a calf muscle. This means a midfielder has been taken off injured in each of Barca's four Champions League games this season -- following Rafinha against Roma, Iniesta versus Bayer Leverkusen and Sergi Roberto in last month's first meeting with BATE.
With Messi looking increasingly unlikely to feature at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Munir, who has played in every game since the Argentine was injured, now looks set to play on the right of the attack.
The youngster has not scored for Barca in over 12 months, but did make an impact on proceedings after replacing Rakitic here, with his driving run winning the penalty converted by Neymar for the opener.
Luis Enrique was clearly thinking ahead when removing Iniesta with 25 minutes left to play, and Sergio Busquets soon afterwards. These are two of his only three fit midfield options for Sunday's La Liga clash with Villarreal, and both will be badly needed in Madrid on Nov. 21.
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3. Defence starting to take shape
If the rest of Barca XI for the Clasico now looks more or less settled, the back four remains unknown.
Injuries, suspensions and experimentation means that Luis Enrique has changed his back line for each of his team's 16 competitive games this season. Tonight saw Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba rested, while chances were given for Thomas Vermaelen and Adriano. And although this was not a perfect performance at all, after a rough start to the season the blaugrana back line has now kept clean sheets in three of their last four outings in all competitions.
Barca's defenders were anxiously looking for offside flags twice in the opening stages, and later in the first half were twice grateful that goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen showed good anticipation and composure to come from his line and mop up. The second time, he dummied a BATE player to begin an attack which ended with Suarez heading just over at the other end.
Vermaelen, making his UCL debut for Barca, was not often tested, but was quite lucky that a wild first half challenge on Mikhail Gordeichuk was ruled 9correctly0 to have been just outside the penalty area. Adriano also had a quiet enough game at left-back, although he again ran risk of conceding a spot-kick when losing the flight of a bouncing ball and grappling with Igor Stasevich. Apart from those moments the pair looked solid enough, and Ter Stegen had no real save to make over the 90 minutes.
Right-back Dani Alves did get punished when he was booked after being outpaced on the break by Aleksandr Volodko and having to pull back the BATE left-winger near half-way. Alves' place looks safe though, especially as only other real option Sergi Roberto will probably be needed in midfield.
So it looks increasingly likely that the Clasico will see Barca's long-term first-choice back four [Alves, Pique, Javier Mascherano and Alba] get their first run since last season's Champions League final.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan