FC Barcelona return to league action tomorrow at the Camp Nou, playing host to Racing Santander who are yet to register their first win of the season. Racing have huge problems off the field, with debts amounting to €48 million, and new owner Ali Syed has not yet delivered on his claim of making Racing Santander the third "superpower" in Spanish football.
After failing to take control at Blackburn Rovers, he turned his attentions to the little club on the Cantabria coast, and despite the signing of ex-Barca starlet Giovani Dos Santos on loan back in January, he has not made a splash in the transfer market at all. Now don’t get me wrong, Racing are a decent club, but reinforcements are surely needed before they can challenge for a UEFA Champions League place?
Sure, they held Real Madrid to a draw back in September, but the squad is dangerously thin, and the real aim for this season is to stave off relegation. Therefore one can expect a defensive outlook from Hector Cuper, and who can blame him?
Earlier this week he claimed Barcelona were "the best side I have ever seen" and given that Andres Iniesta is returning to the squad; his task has got a whole lot harder. Just to put a little persepective on this match, Barcelona receive €150 million from TV revenue, and little ol’ Racing receive a mere tenth of that figure.
While FC Barcelona bolstered a Champions League squad with the purchases of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, Racing were left trawling through the loan market to cut costs and stave off the threat of insolvency. Even for La Liga, this seems like a mis-match.
After giving away a penalty in midweek, Victor Valdes will start in goal and look to keep a fourth consecutive clean sheet for the Blaugrana. Ahead of him should be captain Carles Puyol and his partner in crime, Gerard Pique. Both have been victims of rumours claiming their relationships have come to an end, but in the world of celebrity, it is hard to tell. Knowing Puyol, nothing will affect him on the pitch, so there is nothing to worry about there...
Now we hit a grey area. Will Guardiola opt for the 3-4-3 that has been so effective against the lesser teams, or will he play it "safe" with a 4-3-3? Either way, I feel that Eric Abidal may be given a rest to try and recover from his niggling injuries, and Dani Alves will complete the trio of defenders. Usually I would be against such a decision, but Alves has showcased his disciplined side as of late, and considering the likelihood of Racing operating with a lone front man, he may be short of work anyway.
Should Pep choose the 3-4-3 there will be a place for Sergio Busquets in that holding midfield role, and hopefully the deadly duo of Xavi and Iniesta will get some game time. I would prefer Thiago to start as well, but Guardiola has a certain preference to Seydou Keita, and Thiago may have to settle for a place on the bench.
Then you have the attack, and there is only one option. With Sanchez still recovering from his torn hamstring and Jonathan Soriano presumably still suffering from whatever ailed him, it only leaves the MVP trio, and I could think of worse things to happen to a club.
Lionel Messi is just Lionel Messi, David Villa has started to hit top form, and Pedro is still consistent, even if goals have been a little harder to come by. This is a trio that came close to 100 goals in all competitions last season, Racing will be aware of the dangers, but hard-pressed to do anything about them.
Alternatively, Andres Iniesta could be given a place on the wing, with Thiago slotting into midfield, but either way is bad news for Racing, and good news for Barca.
As for Santander, I would expect a 4-2-3-1 formation with effectively six or seven defensive players, and a lone target man. Such tactics have become the norm when facing Barcelona, and to be honest, are getting easier to break down, and nullify. The lone striker gets isolated, moves out wide and still receives little supply; the defense are just glad to have a little respite so aimlessly boot the ball up field where Busquets or Pique is waiting to recycle possession.
In summary, it should be a relatively straight-forward start to a week of three home matches, which culminate in a tricky tie with Sevilla.
Match Prediction: FC Barcelona to get the job done in the first half, before conserving energy for the hectic week ahead. I would plump for a win by three or more goals.