Barcelona not at their best in win over Apoel Nicosia
Ireland’s Cillian Sheridan started for Cypriot side but Gerard Pique scored Catalan’s winner
Barcelona defender Gerard Pique (left) celebrates his goal against Apoel Nicosia with Brazilian Neymar da Silva at Camp Nou. Photograph: Toni Albir / EPA
Barcelona 1 Apoel Nicosia 0
Barcelona won their opening Champions League game but that was no more than could be expected. Indeed, it was less than most expected and they could have got less still. In the very last minute German goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen, one of three players making his competitive debut for the club, made a save that secured a 1-0 victory over Cypriot side Apoel Nicosia. Gerard Piqué scored the only goal with a header from a free-kick midway through the first half.
Apoel restricted the Catalan side to few chances until a very late flurry and then almost took the victory from them. Satisfaction instead came from a fourth clean sheet of the season, the control exercised with a changed team, and debuts given to three players. For midfielder Sergi Samper, this was particularly special. He joined Barcelona as a six-year-old; 13 years on, he played for the only side at the club left: the first team.
There was an unfamiliar look about the Barcelona starting XI, seven of whom began a game for the first time this season. Of the team that had started against Athletic Bilbao at the weekend, only Lionel Messi and the 19-year-old began here. There was a debut for Samper in place of the suspended Sergio Busquets and Ter Stegen played his first Barcelona game in goal. The feeling after a game in which he made no saves but was a commanding presence is that it will not be his last.
Xavi Hernandez, by contrast, started his 142nd Champions League game, equalling Raul as the man who has made the most European Cup appearances. It was, though, his first start of what will be a final season in which he will feature only occasionally.
If Barcelona were less familiar than normal, Apoel were less familiar still. John Arne Riise was not included, although their goalkeeper Urko Pardo had begun his career in Barcelona’s youth system playing for the B and C teams. There were also three Brazilians, an Argentinian, two Portuguese, including midfielder Tiago Gomes, at Blackpool last season, and Irish striker Cillian Sheridan. The former Celtic, Motherwell, Plymouth, St Johnstone and CSKA Sofia player began up front, having scored in the qualifying rounds against HJK Helsinki and Aalborg.
It was Vinicius who had the game’s first shot, in the opening minutes, and Tomas De Vincenti soon dived to head a dangerous left-sided cross that he could not quite reach. Ter Stegen was later quickly out of his goal to head away from the edge of his area but not much else was happening and this was a game that would be played out at the other end, albeit with little incision.
That Vinicius’s shot was Apoel’s last of the opening 45 minutes may not have surprised; that Barcelona did not take many more did. Apoel waited, a yellow wall between Barcelona and the goal, two lines of four close together and close to their area. The two forwards were rarely more than a few yards from them. Apoel were well-organised, smart, and quick to close the spaces that momentarily opened.
By the half-time whistle Barcelona had enjoyed only four shots on target. Pardo had saved twice from Messi, pushing away a 20-yard free-kick and another shot after the Argentinian dashed into the area. Neymar hit high and wide after another brief opening on the left. When the goal came, in the 28th minute, it arrived via a set-play. Messi curled the ball in from the right, bending goalwards, and Pique headed in from the edge of the six-yard box. Barcelona’s last three goals had all been provided by Messi, a glimpse perhaps of a new role.
There were few glimpses of goal in a Camp Nou that was mostly quiet and far from full. The pattern continued; Barcelona carried the ball forward and Apoel waited for them, occasionally looking to sprint out on the break. Momentarily, one sprint following a Barcelona corner looked like paying off. But Mario Sergio, racing up the right, could not find Vinicius, who was sprinting to join him on the other side. There was a warning there for Barcelona; this may not be done yet.
With 12 minutes to go another break should have ended with a better finish from De Vicente. And then Rafik Djebbour brought a save from Ter Stegen in the last minute. They had appeared comfortable throughout, and Djebbour’s shot was only their second on target, but the risk was there.
Before that Munir el Haddadi had headed in only to be ruled out for offside. It was the last thing he did: another 19-year-old striker, another debutant, replaced him. And with three minutes left, Sandro Ramirez struck a shot just wide: it was the closest Barcelona had come in the whole of the second half, although Messi then slid in for one last try in the dying seconds.