Barcelona players during a training session, on Tuesday
Madrid: Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino will make his Champions League debut when Ajax Amsterdam visit the Nou Camp on Wednesday for a Group H encounter with a run of patchy defensive performances and a lack of killer instinct in front of goal his main concerns.
In another crunch match from the same group, Massimiliano Allegri’s AC Milan will have to counter a host of injury problems for their opener against Celtic at San Siro, who themselves would be missing a couple of their key men.
Jose Mourinho’s men return to the continent’s elite club competition against FC Basel in Group E whom they defeated 5-2 on aggregate in the Europa League semi-finals last season. In the same group, Schalke take on Steaua Bucharest in their opening match.
In Group G, Arsenal travel to Marseille keeping in mind that with matches against Napoli and Borussia Dortmund to come, a positive result at the Stade Velodrome on Wednesday could prove crucial to their qualification hopes. Juergen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund take on Napoli away to kick off their campaign with thoughts of last year’s final defeat behind them, and they know that it won’t be easy against Rafa Benitez’ outfit.
In Group G, a crunch tie is expected when Atletico Madrid take on Russia’s Zenit St Petersburg, while Austria Vienna kick-off their campaign against FC Porto at home.
Martino inherited a team from the ailing Tito Vilanova that secured a fourth La Liga title in five years last season but had suffered a humiliating 7-0 drubbing at the hands of eventual winners Bayern Munich in the two-legged semi-final of Europe’s elite club competition.
The 0-3 home defeat in the second leg ended a 21-match unbeaten run at their giant arena and the aggregate result was by far their worst in Europe.
“They were just the better team in all respects, physically and in football terms too,” Barca’s World Player of the Year Lionel Messi said on Uefa website last week.
“They just played a great first leg and... Were really superior to us,” added the Argentine, who like compatriot Martino hails from the city of Rosario.
Brazil forward Neymar will be making his Champions League debut on Wednesday and if his performance against Sevilla was any indication, he is ready for the European championship.
“Neymar played an impeccable match because it’s not just about his attacking game but the peripheral work he does for the team,” Martino said.
Ajax coach Frank de Boer, who is bidding to lead the Dutch champions into the knock-out round for the first time since 2005-06, will be a familiar face to many of the Barca fans.
The 43-year-old former Netherlands international played for Barca between 1999 and 2003 and won the Spanish league title in 1999 alongside twin brother Ronald.
Borussia manager Juergen Klopp could not have hoped for a better dress rehearsal for the Napoli match than Saturday’s 6-2 demolition of Hamburg SV. “That was amazing,” he told reporters. “It was spectacular how the boys played up front and it was pure fun watching them.”