Usual suspects Messi, Pique and Neymar shine for Barcelona

Barca will face tougher tests and Apoel can be satisfied by their organisation for far stronger sides have wilted at Camp Nou as familiar names for Barcelona once again lift them to victory.

Apoel's Carlao, left, challenges Barcelona's  Lionel Messi during their Uefa Champions League match at Camp Nou. Barcelona won 1-0. David Ramos / Getty Images
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Barcelona - Pique 28'

Man of the match - Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

BARCELONA // Barcelona coach Luis Enrique awarded two full debuts, as well as first Uefa Champions League appearances for 19-year-old strikers Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez, and the changes made little difference to the rhythm of his side as they defeated well-organised Cypriot champions Apoel 1-0 at Camp Nou.

Barca began their opening Group F game with an unconventional midfield three of Xavi, Sergi Roberto and Sergi Samper, the 19-year-old defensive midfielder making his debut after becoming the first player to captain Barca at every age group from 11 to the B team.

Samper, who was born and raised in Barcelona, joined the club when he was six.

He wanted to be a tennis player but his grandfather persuaded him to be a footballer.

He was comfortable in central midfield, passing as elegantly as a young Pep Guardiola and winning the ball back when in defence.

German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen also made a first start for his new club after a close season transfer from Borussia Monchengladbach, while El Haddadi again started for a Barca side that had lost one of their 27 previous home games in the Champions League.

After enjoying greater possession but rarely threatening the team from Nicosia – whose starting XI contained only two Cypriots – Barca went ahead after 28 minutes.

Gerard Pique headed in an in-swinging Lionel Messi free kick, conceded unnecessarily between the edge of the penalty area and the touchline.

Messi had seen an 11th minute free kick saved, but his ball to Pique meant another assist after he had two against Athletic Bilbao on ­Saturday.

Fourteen years to the day since he joined the club, Messi also had a 38th-minute shot saved after Neymar had set him up with a pass.

Messi and Neymar combined again for the Brazilian to shoot in the 45th minute but Belgian goalkeeper Urko Pardo, who began his career at Camp Nou for Barca’s C and B teams, again saved in front of the 62,832 crowd, which included 2,000 travelling supporters.

They should be satisfied with their side’s performance.

Barca enjoyed 73 per cent of first half possession and Ter Stegen was untroubled by Apoel’s Irish striker Cillian Sheridan and his Argentine partner Tomas De Vicenti. Apoel remained disciplined and hard to break down into the second period.

Restricted to indecisive counter attacks, they did not look like scoring and kept the deficit to one.

Ramirez came on for his Champions League debut when he replaced Munir in the 67th minute. Like Munir, who is the same age, the 19-year-old Canarian from Las Palmas made his first team debut last month.

The pair had impressed together for Barca B last term and Enrique believes in promoting youth.

Barca will face tougher tests and Apoel can be satisfied by their organisation for far stronger sides have wilted at Camp Nou. They almost scored a 90th minute equaliser when Stegen saved from substitute Rafik Djebbour.

Barca’s win was a narrow one, but until that late Apoel effort, achieved without the tension the tight margin may have suggested.

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