Barcelona, Spain : Lionel Messi set up Barcelona's only goal in a 1-0 win over Cypriot club APOEL on Wednesday for an uninspiring Champions League debut for coach Luis Enrique in Group F.
Messi picked out Gerard Pique with a free kick and the defender headed in the hosts' solitary goal in the 28th minute at Camp Nou. With nine changes to the starting 11 that beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 on Saturday, Barcelona otherwise failed to trigger its flowing attack despite having Neymar in the team. The Catalan side had to deal with a series of APOEL counterattacks in the second half but held on for the three points.
A late save prevented Messi from closing in on Raul Gonzalez's all-time scoring record, but Xavi Hernandez played in his 142nd Champions League game to draw level with the former Real Madrid great for the most appearances in the competition.
In the other Group F match, Paris Saint-Germain was held to a 1-1 at Ajax after Lasse Schone scored from a 74th-minute free kick to cancel out an early goal by PSG's Edinson Cavani.
Last year under manager Gerardo Martino, four-time winner Barcelona failed to reach the semifinals of Europe's top-tier tournament for the first time since 2007. Luis Enrique, a former player and youth team coach, was hired this offseason and tasked with restoring Barcelona's status of perennial challenger for the European Cup.
And even though it wasn't brilliant, Luis Enrique is off to a winning start. "What I most liked was the result, the attitude of my players and of the fans. We have to improve a lot, but I am very happy," he said. "You also have to take into account that we were playing against 10 men behind the ball, and that will never be easy. We saw it was going to be a tough match from the very beginning, but my players stayed calm and we able to get the win."
Barcelona has won all four games without conceding a goal under Luis Enrique after also taking the early lead of the Spanish league with three victories in as many matches.
For Barcelona, the match featured debuts for goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and youth-team midfielder Sergi Samper as well as European debuts for young forwards Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez.
Adriano played his first game since recovering from a heart irregularity detected this summer, while Xavi also got his first start of the season. The overhaul, however, almost cost Barcelona dearly when APOEL relinquished its defensive tactics from the first half and went searching for an equalizer, which it almost found on several occasions.
Luis Enrique acknowledged the changes may have hurt this team's attack, but he defended his rotations as necessary for maintaining the competitive edge of his entire squad.
"I want all my players ready to compete," he said. "I firmly believe that is the way to run this team." After a tepid start with a couple of tame attempts by Munir and Neymar, Barcelona went ahead just before the half-hour mark when Dani Alves received a nasty tackle from Marios Antoniades. With Dani Alves being treated on the sideline, Messi curled an in-swinging free kick into the area that Pique guided into the net.
After spending most of the first half camped in its area, APOEL managed to conjure a counterattack in the 64th that Dani Alves did well to halt. Luis Enrique sent on Andres Iniesta, Ramirez and Rafina at intervals to try and spark his attack.
But it was forward Tomas De Vincenti who wasted a chance in the 79th when his strike sailed woefully wide after APOEL had caught Barcelona off-balance on the break.
"We could have taken better advantage of our chances, especially at the end," APOEL coach Giorgos Donis said. "But as I have said before, there is no justice in football."
Messi came close to adding to his 67 Champions League goals and close in on Raul's milestone of 71 in stoppage time, when he pounced on a rebound of a Neymar strike, only for Mario Sergio to slide in and deny his goal-bound shot.
Ter Stegen then had to make a one-handed save to keep out Gustavo Manduca's rising strike and guarantee the win.