Forget the last time Celtic ventured to Catalonia – and indeed the pre-season clash between the two teams in Dublin back on July 30 – the Barcelona who will face Celtic at the Nou Camp on Tuesday night will be a mightily different proposition to the team who hit them for six when they met in the Champions League three years ago.
The tiki-taka style they practically patented during Pep Guardiola’s four trophy-laden years with the club, though not gone completely, has been toned down, with current coach Luis Enrique favouring a more direct approach from his team, whose primary goal is getting the ball to their fabled front three – the so-called ‘MSN’ strike-force of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar – as quickly and as often as possible.
There’s that one familiar part, though. Switch off for a second, and Enrique’s Barca, just like Guardiola’s Barca, can tear you apart in the blink of an eye.
When Luis Enrique took the helm from Gerardo “Tata” Martino in May 2014, “evolution” was the word he used to describe the changes he would make in order to put Barca back on its perch. The Catalans, it was said before his arrival, had ‘no Plan B’, and for all their impressive possession statistics, often failed to find a way around sides who parked the bus.
Having inherited an ageing (and now departed) Xavi – the man who, alongside hypnotic passing partner Andres Iniesta, orchestrated some of the most celebrated footballing performances of recent times – Luis Enrique was quick to realise that not only was he lacking the tools to replicate the celestial football of the Guardiola era, but anyway, Barca’s style had become predictable.
Luis Enrique set out to reinvent Barca. And he succeeded, winning the treble in his first season, and securing a domestic double in his second.
It’s just a trickle for now, but there’s talk among Cules (Barca fans) that the current coach is an even better one than Guardiola. It’s a claim that can be backed up with hard stats, too. Luis Enrique, after all, reached the milestone of 100 victories in just 126 official games with a workmanlike win over Athletic Bilbao a fortnight ago, while Guardiola took 139 games to get there. The Asturian coach not only required 13 fewer games, he did so with more goals scored and fewer goals conceded.
Impressive though his numbers are, it’s not all been plain sailing for Luis Enrique. In January 2015, he was perilously close to the sack after an infamous defeat to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad and a well-documented falling out with Messi. That night, when the Basques scored after just one minute of play, the TV cameras honed in on the Barca bench, where Luis Enrique had left Messi and Neymar. Nodding his head towards the pitch, the Brazilian turned to the Argentine and said: “You better get warmed up”. The images of the superstar duo laughing together said everything about what they thought of their manager. When Messi excused himself from an open training session the next morning (tummy bug), Luis Enrique blew a gasket and urged the board to hit the club’s all-time leading scorer with the biggest fine possible, which they very sensibly ignored.
After a rainforests’ worth of column inches speculating that Messi was set to pack his bags for Chelsea, Luis Enrique and his star man made up and the truce between the pair bore fruit as Barca got their season back on track.
The first indicator that Luis Enrique’s new-look Barca could win it all by doing it his way came when, faced with eternal rival Real Madrid in the final Clasico of the 2014/15 season, Barca were outplayed – yes, outplayed – for large periods of the match and still emerged victorious.
“It was not the fact they had won that was striking so much as the way they won,” wrote Sid Lowe, the Guardian’s La Liga correspondent.
“Barcelona won the way Madrid used to win, with the same cruelty,” said El Mundo Deportivo.
“I never imagined I would see Barcelona win like this,” wrote Emilio Pérez de Rozas in El Periódico.
Not long after, the talismanic Messi, now fully behind his coach, at least publicly, offered some insight into how the Catalans had evolved under Luis Enrique. “We’ve changed a little bit,” said the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. “We’ve become a more vertical (direct) team. Of course, we’ve not lost our ideology of keeping hold of the ball. That’s our trademark and our priority: to control the play and keep possession. But now we’ve incorporated the idea that, with just a couple of touches, we can get in front of the opposition’s goal. Before it was about getting there using more elaborate build-up play.”
Messi’s transformation – and we’re not talking about the bleach-blond locks and ginger beard – has been the most striking of all. Restricting those mesmeric dribbles to occasional cameos, the pint-sized genius now likes to drop deep to link up the play in the midfield and he has become almost Xavi-esque in his ability to slice open defences with a single of flick that wand of a left foot and put Suarez or Neymar through on goal.
Over the summer, Barca made six signings; shoring up the defence with the additions of Lucas Digne and Samuel Umtiti, securing back-up for goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen with the acquisition of Jasper Cillessen, and beefing up the midfield with Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes. Last but not least, the addition of deadline-day signing Paco Alcacer has provided Luis Enrique with the central striker he so desired.
“We have reinforced the squad brilliantly,” Enrique said last week. “On paper, I have the best squad in my three years here [as coach].”
There are, in other words, plenty of reasons for Celtic to be fearful.