Barcelona at full strength for Downs clash

File: Barcelona's Lionel Messi (R) celebrates withBrazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho and Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez during the Spanish Copa del Rey final. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

JOHANNESBURG - South African football fans gathered at OR Tambo International Airport on a cold Wednesday morning to welcome a full-strength Barcelona team, including talisman Lionel Messi.

The La Liga champions take on Absa Premiership champions Mamelodi Sundowns at FNB Stadium, Johannesburg at 6:15pm as part of the Nelson Mandela Centenary celebrations.

SA football lovers anticipated a less than star-studded Barcelona team sheet to contest the Nelson Mandela Centenary Cup encounter but were pleasantly surprised as the likes of Messi, Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho touched down in Johannesburg.

File: Barcelona's Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi arrives with teammates for the Nelson Mandela Centenary Challenge against South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns at the FNB Stadium, in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 16, 2018. Credit: Reuters

The last time the two sides met was way back in 2007, when the game ended 2-1 in favour of the Catalan giants.

That contest gave SA a taste of the finest of European quality as Barcelona exhibited their modern 'Tiki-taka' playing style against a strong Sundown’s outfit.

Brazillian superstar Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o, Gianluca Zambrotta and Barcelona legend Carles Puyol were all in action on a freezing night at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

Barcelona is one of very few big name European football clubs to bring their stars along for friendlies played in South Africa over the last ten years.

Other teams, including newly crowned English Champions Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspurs and Manchester United have all visited the country before but were guilty on more than one occasion of fielding their lesser known players but for a sprinkling of big-name quality.

Nevertheless, Barcelona, a team with a huge following in SA are expected to fly out directly after the match at FNB Stadium, as they are to play their last league match of the La Liga season at the Camp Nou, against Real Sociedad on Sunday.

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