PREVIEW | FC Barcelona v Royal Antwerp

PREVIEW | FC Barcelona v Royal Antwerp

The Champions League gets going at Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys with a 9pm CEST Tuesday kick-off against a rising force in Belgian football

The Champions League is back at last! The Estadi Olímpic is the venue this Tuesday at 9pm CEST for FC Barcelona's first game in their bid to win the coveted trophy for the sixth time and they'll be doing it against a side that is making its debut in the group stage.

Group stage debutants

Royal Antwerp are the oldest club in Belgium and have been regular constituents of the country's top division over the year. But despite being one of the best supported teams in Belgium, they have rarely had much in the way of trophies to celebrate, and haven't usually even been in contention for them. But all that has changed in recent years, and last season they won an unprecedented league and cup double.

And this season they saw off AEK Athens in the qualifying round to reach the dizzy heights of the Champions League group stage for the very first time, becoming the seventh Belgian team in total to enjoy that honour.

They may seem like an unknown entity, but this is not the first time that the Catalans have met Antwerp in UEFA competitions before. The two clubs crossed paths  in the old Fairs Cup way back in 1965/66, when although the Belgians won the first leg 2-1, Barça turned things around with a 2-0 victory at Camp Nou in the return. The teams have also met in a couple of preseason friendlies since then, but this is the first time they have met in Europe's premier club competition.

That's no surprise. Antwerp's only previous participation was way back in 1957–58, when they were knocked out by Real Madrid in their first and only tie. That actually makes this the longest ever gap between participations by a single club.

Familiar faces

There are also a couple of very familiar faces among the staff at Royal Antwerp. The man who has coached the team into its most golden period ever is none other than Marc van Bommel, who in his playing days spent one season at FC Barcelona and was in the team that won this competition in 2006, beating Arsenal in the final at Wembley. Another Netherlands legend, Marc Overmars, who wore the famous blaugrana shirt for four seasons, is the current director of football at the Belgian club.

This game is also the very first time that the Champions League anthem will be heard at the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys. However, it's not the first time that Barça have played a European fixture at the ground. In 1996/97, a Cup Winners' Cup fixture was played here against AEK Larnaca of Cyprus due to work being done on the pitch in the usual Barça stadium.

Barça are playing in the competition for a joint record 20th consecutive year, but they will be hoping for a vast improvement on the last two seasons, when they were eliminated in the group stage both times. They share Group H with Shakthar Donetsk and Porto, who meet at the time in Hamburg, where the Ukrainians are playing their home fixtures due to the conflict in their own country.

Barça hitting top form

Barça are flying at the moment. They have strung together four consecutive wins in La Liga, the most impressive of all coming this Saturday past when they saw off Betis to the tune of a 5-0 win.

Antwerp, meanwhile, have been stuttering a bit. There first six games have already brought their first defeat, at the hands of Anderlecht, and they were held to draws by both Leuven and Union Saint-Gilloise before a vast improvement at the weekend when they won 3-0 at Westerlo.

Araujo left out

It was hinted at the weekend that Ronald Araujo would be fit to play in this one, but although the Uruguayan has been able to train as normal this week, he has been left out of the 21-man squad in order not to rush his return. The injured Pedri also misses out but is reportedly fast on the road to recovery too.

New signings João Cancelo, Iñigo Martínez, João Félix, Oriol Romeu and Ilkay Gündoğan all stand to make their UCL debuts, or at least their debuts in a Barça shirt, as do youngsters Astralaga, Lamine Yamal, Marc Casadó and Fermín, who have all been included on the list.

Did you know?

This is the first time Barça have played a Belgian team since they beat Bruges 3-2 in 2002.

On three previous competitive visits to Spain, Antwerp have failed to register a single goal and have been on the receiving end of ten. And in eight meetings at home to Belgian teams, Barça have won seven, drawn one and lost none.

Marc van Bommel is no stranger to managing in the Champions League, although after nine games in charge of PSV and Wolfsburg, he is still searching for his first win.

If he starts, Lamine Yamal would become the youngest player ever to start a game in the Champions League. And if he comes on as a substitute, he'd be the second youngest player ever to appear in the competition, topped only by Youssoufa Moukoko of Borussia Dortmund in 2020.

What they're saying

In his pre-game press conference, coach Xavi Hernández admitted that it's time for the team to step things up in the Champions League. In the last two seasons, the football was fine, but it's not enough if it doesn't get you the results you need.


Oriol Romeu spoke on behalf of the players, and described how excited he is to be going into a Champions League campaign for the first time in a decade since was last involved, wearing the Chelsea shirt at the time.





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