Barcelona without Messi welcomes BATE in Champions League
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona's Camp Nou Stadium will be fully decked out in party mood as it welcomes BATE Borisov, not least because it is celebrating 10 years since Lionel Messi scored his first Champions League goal.
A decade after an 18-year-old Messi netted the third of Barcelona's five goals against Panathinaikos on Nov. 2, 2005, the club is the defending champion, having won four European cups since.
A knee injury has sidelined the Argentine star with in-form attacking duo of Neymar and Luis Suarez charged with supplying the fireworks against the Belarusian club.
Fears that Barcelona would lack finishing power without Messi have proved unfounded, with six wins and one draw in the eight matches played since Messi's absence and the team sharing 24 points with Real Madrid at the top of the Spanish league.
Barcelona leads Group E on seven points, having dropped two in a 1-1 draw at Roma, while second-place Bayer Leverkusen will hope for an away win against the Italian side to improve on its four points.
BATE has three points after three rounds and Roma is bottom on two.
Here are some things to know about Wednesday's matches:
BATE is guaranteed a boisterous reception as several prominent pro-Catalan groups have called on fans to fill the stadium to its maximum capacity and some 300 volunteers are to hand out 30,000 regional flags.
Coach Luis Enrique is to field midfielder Sergi Roberto who scored his first goal with Barcelona against BATE in Dec. 2011.
Alongside him will be Ivan Rakitic, who slotted in both in the club's 2-0 away-leg win on Oct. 20 against BATE and also scored the goal that opened the 2-1 comeback win against Bayer Leverkusen a month earlier.
BATE'S INSIDE MAN ABSENT
Barcelona has plenty of injury problems with Messi and Rafinha out, but BATE isn't faring much better.
The Belarusian club arrives in Barcelona without the one man in its team who knows the Camp Nou best, former Barcelona midfielder Alexander Hleb, who has a hip injury. Also absent are defender Maxim Zhavnerchik and forward Vitaly Rodionov.
BATE's direct style may have led to an upset 3-2 win over Roma in September, but it posed little threat to Barcelona as the Catalan club earned a comfortable 2-0 win in Belarus in the reverse fixture.
One plus for BATE is a lack of domestic distractions, having wrapped up a 10th straight Belarusian Top League title more than two weeks ago.
It's been an up and down season for Roma goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. The Poland international had a superb start to the campaign but has had a difficult time since breaking a finger on his left hand since colliding with Suarez against Barcelona.
After missing several weeks of action, Szczesny made some key blunders in a surprising 3-2 loss at BATE Borisov.
''After that match I told Garcia there was no point in discussing the squad's performance considering what I did,'' Szczesny said.
Szczesny had more trouble in Saturday's 1-0 loss to Inter Milan, failing to react quickly enough to a long shot from Gary Medel and thus surrendering the Serie A lead.
''It wasn't Johan Neeskens taking that shot,'' said Roma coach Rudi Garcia, referring to the former Netherlands standout.
Szczesny joined Roma in July on a season-long loan from Arsenal after the London club signed Petr Cech.
''In nine months anything can happen in football, so I don't know what will happen at the end of the season,'' Szczesny told Sky Italia. ''But Arsenal is like my family. ... I have to admit that if the Gunners call me back I would say yes.''
VOELLER'S ROMA RETURN
Bayer Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Voeller remains a hero to the Roma fans who called the former striker ''the flying German'' during his prolific stint from 1987 to 1992. He scored 45 goals in 142 Serie A games for the club.
Now 55, Voeller can only look on from the side, but the 1990 World Cup winner retains a soft spot for his former club, which he says has the potential to be Italian champion.
''They've shown they can play well and be the best in Italy,'' Voeller told Gazzetta dello Sport.
With Barcelona seemingly certain of first place in Group E, Leverkusen and Roma are battling it out for second place, though the Italian side is still looking for its first win. Leverkusen is two points ahead, a point above BATE Borisov.
''If we don't lose at (Stadio) Olimpico we'll have a small advantage to qualify but it will be a difficult match,'' Voeller said.