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Barca's win at Celtic cannot hide problems with summer recruits

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Britain Football Soccer - Celtic v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Group Stage - Group C - Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland - 23/11/16 Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their second goal with team mates Reuters / Russell Cheyne Livepic
Britain Football Soccer - Celtic v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Group Stage - Group C - Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland - 23/11/16 Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their second goal with team mates Reuters / Russell Cheyne Livepic

By Richard Martin

(Reuters) - Barcelona may have again eased into the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday but their win at Celtic could still not paper over some of the cracks that have developed in a squad recruited at huge expense.

Despite splurging 122 million euros ($128.84 million) on bolstering their ranks in the summer, Barcelona are still overwhelmingly reliant on the same starting 11 in their biggest games, with their expensive new recruits failing to deliver.

Barca drew a blank against Malaga last Saturday without top scorers Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi and vital midfielder Ivan Rakitic, slipping four points behind leaders Real Madrid at the top of La Liga as a consequence.

Luis Enrique's side were back to full strength on Wednesday, with Suarez and Rakitic producing lively displays while Messi pulled the strings and scored both goals in the 2-0 win at a bitterly cold and atmospheric Celtic Park.

The win, however, only appeared to confirm fears that Barca's first-choice 11 has barely evolved since Luis Enrique took the club's reins in 2014.

Nine of the 11 players that started in Glasgow played in their victorious 2015 Champions League final team against Juventus, yet they have struggled whenever the coach has turned to players on the periphery of the first team this season.

The Catalans were beaten 2-1 by promoted Alaves in September after Luis Enrique made seven changes to his team, including resting Suarez and Messi, and they lost 4-3 at Celta Vigo when Messi was injured and Andres Iniesta was rested from the start.

Similarly, Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba were unavailable in the 3-1 defeat to Manchester City when Barca collapsed in the second half under the weight of intense pressing and speedy counters.

Each of these results had the local media pointing the finger at the new recurits, none of whom have managed to score after 12 La Liga games and five Champions League outings.

That statistic is most damning for centre forward Paco Alcacer, a 30 million euros ($31.68 million) signing from Valencia who was bought to relieve the pressure on Barca's dazzling attacking trident of Messi, Suarez and Neymar.

Alcacer has squandered a series of clear scoring opportunities in his eight apppearances but was almost anonymous in the stalemate with Malaga, going over half an hour without touching the ball.

His old Valencia team mate Andre Gomes, who cost an estimated 35 million euros, has also had a disappointing start, failing to register a single goal or assist and looking out of sync with his midfield partners.

Lucas Digne has done little to suggest he could unseat Alba at left back following his 16.5 million euros signing from Paris St Germain while goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen has only played once since joining from Ajax for 13 million euros.

Luis Enrique has frequently praised 22-year-old midfielder Denis Suarez, his cheapest recruit at 3.5m euros from Villarreal, while France centre-back Samuel Umtiti has looked a good fit though injuries have limited him to nine appearances.

After the failure to beat Malaga, Luis Enrique tried to play down the significance of the absence of Messi and Suarez with the observation: "We have lost games without Messi and Suarez and lost games when they have played. Squads win titles."

Yet with Barca already having dropped seven points in just six home games, the coach's costly attempts to construct a robust squad and reduce the reliance on his elite players cannot be said to have gone to plan.

($1 = 0.9469 euros)

(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Ian Chadband)


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