Finally the international break is behind us, and attentions can now turn back to domestic action, and for us that entails a home match against Real Zaragoza. However, the Blaugrana may have to cope without a whole host of key players, including Lionel Messi who proclaimed himself "dead" on his feet after Argentina’s win on Tuesday. Not only that but it is questionable whether Barcelona’s Spanish contingent have recovered from their 10,000 mile round trip to Costa Rica in midweek.
Factor in the tricky trip to Milan that follows, and we could well be looking at a makeshift line-up tomorrow evening. Javier Aguirre is a smart coach and lest we forget the minor miracle he performed with Osasuna earlier this decade. The budget was so tight it squeaked, but he rallied the troops and got them into the UEFA Cup, narrowly missing out on the glamour of the Champions League.
That being said, Zaragoza are languishing just above the relegation zone, and without a win to their name away from home, do not look capable of threatening Barcelona’s unbeaten record. The Camp Nou has been like a fortress this season and aside from that infamous match against Sevilla, there have been goals aplenty for the home side in each match. In fact, once you discount the Sevilla match you can see that Barcelona have scored 26 in five wins at the Camp Nou, working out at a little over 5 (!) per match.
The much-maligned FIFA virus could have an effect, but all signs still point to a vital victory for the Blaugrana. With Real Madrid kicking-off at the Mestalla against Valencia in the immediate aftermath of the final whistle at the Camp Nou, the ideal weekend would see FC Barcelona back atop the pile as league leaders!
Victor Valdes should start in goal bar an illness, but ahead of him may be an unusual back-line given the injury and fitness of some Barca defenders. Carles Puyol played in midweek, and I expect that Pep will be saving his captain for the San Siro. Dani Alves did play on Monday, giving him an extra day of rest, but it was in Qatar. Adriano injured himself in the very same match and Javier Mascherano who has so often filled in as a centre defender may well be tired after his international duty. Therefore, I am predicting a back-line of Gerard Pique, Eric Abidal, Dani Alves and Maxwell.
The midfield is a similar story, with almost every available player recovering from that (pointless) trip to Costa Rica. That leaves very few players at 100% and as much as it pains me to say it, this will probably signal a start for Seydou Keita in defensive midfield. The Malian is a good player, but his skills are wasted in the holding role, although this time there is not much of an alternative if Sergio Busquets and company are jetlagged.
Thiago Alcantara was superb for the Spanish under-21 squad over the past week or so, and he should start against Zaragoza. While he has been impressive, Thiago has yet to reach the heady heights of pre-season in competitive action for Barcelona, but this provides the perfect opportunity for him to show us and the world what he is really made of. With all the talk surrounding his brother Rafinha’s contract renewal I would welcome a celebratory goal or two from the elder Alcantara.
Alongside him could be Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta or Xavi, but with that pivotal match with AC Milan on the mind, I feel Guardiola will opt for Andres Iniesta over the two more injury-prone Spaniards. Iniesta was the sole scorer in Barcelona’s last match against CE L’Hospitalet but was not at his mesmerising best, and the same can be said for his performances for Spain in the international break. If Lionel Messi does not start as is expected, Barcelona will need Iniesta at his best to break down a resolute defense featuring Fernando Meira and ex-Barcelona starlet, Efrain Juarez.
Isaac Cuenca has been in fine form recently, and it is likely that he wins a starting berth on the left-hand side, leaving a space for Alexis Sanchez on the right. However, the Chilean only returned yesterday from his international commitments. I would suggest a start for Gerard Deulofeu, but I doubt he will be included in the match squad. Instead, I predict that Pep will utilise Cesc Fabregas as a false no.9, with David Villa on the left and Cuenca on the right.
Villa managed the equaliser against Costa Rica in midweek, but only after he missed a hatful of chances. El Guaje is certainly off-form, but with Messi, Pedro and possibly Sanchez out, he needs to find his scoring boots pronto.
Zaragoza will almost certainly set-up in a 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 like so many before them, with an emphasis on the defensive side of the game. Their best chance of getting anything out of this game will depend on keeping Barcelona at bay for as long as possible, and taking any chances that may fall their way. Helder Postiga scored twice for Portugal in midweek and could be one to watch out for.
Aside from that, it will all come down to how well Barcelona circulates the ball, and the tempo of the passing in the final third. The FIFA virus will surely rear its ugly head, but in my opinion, Barcelona should secure all three points regardless. A win would boost confidence, and if they can manage it without Lionel Messi, all the better.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win 2-0 with goals from David Villa and Thiago Alcantara.