Messi, Neymar Take Aim At Apoel
One of the most disappointing aspects of Barcelona's failure to win major silverware last season was the lack of on-field chemistry between Lionel Messi and Neymar.
Four-times World Player of the Year Messi and Brazil forward Neymar had injury troubles during 2013-14 but when they were fit, Barca fans, expecting the emergence of a lethal partnership scoring entertaining goals at will, were largely disappointed.
On the evidence of Saturday's 2-0 La Liga win at home to Athletic Bilbao, however, this season may be a different story.
Neymar came off the bench for the final half hour at the Nou Camp and netted a clinical double from a pair of superb Messi assists to preserve Barca's perfect start to the season with three wins in three matches and no goals conceded.
New coach Luis Enrique will be expecting more of the same when Barca host Cypriot side Apoel in their Champions League Group F opener on Wednesday.
A former Barca and Spain midfielder who had stints in charge at clubs including AS Roma and Celta Vigo, Luis Enrique took over from Gerardo Martino with a brief to improve on last term's elimination in the quarterfinals by Atletico Madrid.
Barca spent heavily in the transfer window, bringing in Uruguay forward Luis Suarez, who is banned until the end of October, Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic and France centre back Jeremy Mathieu.
After a positive start, when the defensive weakness that wrecked last season appeared to have been ironed out, hopes are high the club can challenge for silverware again.
“Each year our goal is to get to the (Champions League) final and going out to Atletico last season was a shame,” forward Pedro told a news conference on Monday.
“We have a lot of desire and excitement about winning this title,” added the Spain international.
“The coach has told us to pressure very high up the pitch, steal the ball and keep it ourselves.
“We have done that very well and barely conceded any chances, but there is still room for improvement.”
There was welcome news for Luis Enrique on the injury front on Monday as defenders Dani Alves and new signing Thomas Vermaelen trained with their teammates despite not receiving the formal all-clear from club medical staff.
Alves missed Saturday's game against Bilbao with a left knee problem, while Vermaelen, who joined from Arsenal in the close season, has been suffering with a hamstring strain.
There was no word on the availability of centre back Javier Mascherano, who came off at halftime on Saturday after taking a boot to the head.
Apoel, competing in the group stage for the third time, reached the quarterfinals on their last Champions League appearance in 2011-12.
They have never played Barca and face a daunting task at the Nou Camp, where the Catalan giants have lost only one of their last 27 home games in Europe's elite club competition.
“Barca are a team who are building up their armory again but they have also managed to maintain their base,” Apoel's Spanish-Belgian goalkeeper Urko Pardo said in an interview published on Barca's website (www.fcbarcelona.es) on Monday.
“For the time being, it looks like it's going very well for them,” added the 31-year-old, a graduate of Barca's academy who briefly played for their B team.
“Obviously they are a great team and very difficult to beat. But we have experience in Europe and we are confident of getting a good result.”
Ajax Amsterdam host Paris St Germain in Wednesday's other Group F game.