Vilanova’s Barça looks to maintain perfect start

Vilanova’s Barça looks to maintain perfect start

BARCELONA, Spain - The Associated Press
Vilanova’s Barça looks to maintain perfect start

Lionel Messi will try to open the new European campaign with goals.

After handing coach Tito Vilanova a perfect league start, Barcelona will look to extend its form to the Champions League when it opens Group G against Spartak Moscow tonight.

The Spanish team leads the league after winning all four of its games and, despite losing the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid, has opened up an eight-point lead over its biggest domestic rival.

Vilanova is no stranger to Barcelona’s recent success in the competition, having been assistant coach when the Catalan club won the competition in 2008 and 2011. But the relative ease in which he has been able to take over a team led by Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta has still been somewhat surprising.

“He more or less does the same (as Guardiola),” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “He always relies on the system more than the opponent’s way of playing.”

Vilanova will be without the injured pair of Iniesta and Carles Puyol, while Alexis Sanchez and Jordi Alba remain doubts for the Russian club’s visit to the Camp Nou, where the hosts haven’t lost a match in 16 outings. That was a 2-1 loss to another Russian club, Rubin Kazan, in October 2009.

Familiar face
Spartak coach Unai Emery knows his rival well after having coached for Valencia and Almeria in Spain before joining the Russian club. But the Spanish coach never managed to secure a victory in his 12 matches against Barcelona.

Spartak returns to the competition after a six-year absence led by the arrival of a number of midfielders, including Romulo of Brazil, Kim Kallstrom of Sweden and Spanish playmaker Jose Manuel Jurado.

Celtic returns to the competition for the first time in four seasons to play Portuguese club Benfica in the other Group G match tonight.

But the Scottish champion’s form has been woeful this season, sitting in fifth place after five games.
“I think some players are not concentrating on what they should be doing and thinking about the Champions League,” Celtic coach Neil Lennon said. “They need to buck up their ideas.”

Benfica reached the quarterfinals last season but sold Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia in the offseason.