Without further ado — which amounts to testing the patience of today’s highly impatient football fans — the Champions League proper starts tonight. The group stages are barely intriguing compared to the drama that unfolds in the latter stages of the tournament, when emotions run high amid the frenzy of an important away goal or a deadlock-breaker deep into an all-important second leg tie. Still, we must all be mighty relieved the Champions League finally starts running tonight.
A particular team of interest, as has been the case with the tournament for years, are the defending champions. Barcelona are under the microscope this season, and given the undeniable historical jinx that no holder has ever been able to retain the Champions League, the pressure is well and truly on the champions of Spain this term. Whether they can muster enough to do the unprecedented can only be guessed by next year, but one man is pretty confident of rewriting history at Barcelona.
Javier Mascherano is an integral member of the Barca set-up. He played all the games bar one in the Blaugrana’s romp to Champions League victory last season, and despite his club being under a transfer embargo this summer, the Argentine midfielder is of the opinion the failure of Barca to register new players to add to the world class quality already at the club will strengthen the group at the club.
Mascherano was speaking to Italian daily la Gazzetta dello Sport ahead of Barca’s opening fixture of the group stages against Serie A outfit AS Roma, and said: “For me, that [a small squad] is something which strengthens us as a group. Until January, we don’t have either Aleix Vidal or Arda Turan but we don’t want to use that as an excuse.”
The 31-year-old veteran, who won his second Champions League last season, says his team want their difficult time on the transfer front to be extra motivation to do even better this season, which starts tomorrow night at the imposing Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
“We want it to be extra motivation. We want to be in a position still to be challenging for every title when reinforcements do arrive,” he said.
Mascherano believes the smaller squad means more chances for the fringe players to prove themselves on the big stage. This season, the likes of Sergi Roberto and Rafinha have come off age as first team players, further stressing Mascherano’s point.
“It is also an incentive for those who play less. They must be ready when called upon. Last year, we didn’t win the treble playing with 11 players.
“We did it with a full squad and this year, that will be the case even more so,” added Mascherano.
The last time a champion successfully defended their title was before Rafinha and Roberto were even born, when Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan went on to win back-to-back European Cups in 1989 and 1990. While Mascherano’s words look brilliantly poetic on paper, it remains to be seen whether the current generation of Barcelona led by the genius of Lionel Messi can retain the ‘big ears.’ Plenty odds are stacked against them, but you can never rule anything out in football, can you?