Barca ready for Spartak test

Twice European champion in the last four seasons, Barcelona starts its mission to reclaim the UEFA Champions League trophy when it hosts Spartak Moscow at the Camp Nou in its opening Group G game on Wednesday evening (Thursday morning AEST).

After a northern summer of change at the Camp Nou, with the departure of coach Pep Guardiola and the promotion of his assistant Tito Vilanova, there was plenty of debate about whether it could rise to the challenge set by league champion Real Madrid, as well as on the European stage.

However, apart from the disappointment of losing the domestic Super Cup to Jose Mourinho's men, Barca has made a blistering start in La Liga, with last weekend's 4-1 victory away to Getafe its fourth win in four league games.

As a result, it finds itself eight points clear of Madrid already, a margin that was previously unthinkable this early in a season.

"It is surprising that we have built up such a lead already at the top of the table but nothing more than that," said midfielder Sergio Busquets.

"There is still a long way to go, we are not thinking about other sides at the moment and concentrating on our next match in the Champions League.

"It is still early days but we are in a good position and I am happy to be in the team and playing well."

While Cristiano Ronaldo has failed to find his feet, and Madrid has faltered, his great rival Lionel Messi has started with all guns blazing and has already beaten his own record of goals in a calendar year with 61 so far, including six this term.

Barcelona still has its problems and has not solved the defensive weaknesses which cost it at times last season, but perhaps the best tribute that can be paid to Vilanova is that it has been virtually a seamless transition since he took over the reins from Guardiola, who won 14 trophies in four years.

"Under Vilanova it is the same as before and I am asked to do the same job which depends to an extent on the tactics of the opposition," added Busquets.

The Catalan side has also been boosted by the return of Pedro Rodriguez to his best form after struggling with niggling injuries over the last 12 months, while David Villa continues his journey back to full fitness from a leg break.

Villa is hoping for a starting place against Spartak after scoring as a substitute at the weekend.

However, the bad news to come out of the Getafe game was an injury to veteran defender Carles Puyol, who will be out of action for over a month with a knee ligament injury.

Spartak is now coached by Unai Emery, a Spaniard who is renowned in his homeland for the emphasis he puts on organisation and discipline.

He knows Barcelona well too, having coached Almeria and Valencia before opting to move to Russia in the northern summer.

"I am happy to be coming up against Barcelona because they are one of the three best teams in the world, if not the best, but it is always difficult against them," said Emery, who coached both Villa and Jordi Alba during his time at the Mestalla.

"There are more positives to playing Barcelona than negatives. We must go out and enjoy ourselves."

However, Emery is still searching for his first victory against the Catalan side having lost all six previous visits to the Camp Nou as a coach.

In addition, his team is not in great shape domestically, a 2-2 draw at Kuban Krasnodar at the weekend leaving it in seventh place eight games into the campaign.

Emery did lead Spartak back into the group stage of the competition, though, thanks to a 3-2 aggregate triumph against Fenerbahce of Turkey in the play-off round.

Source AFP