By the time FC Barcelona kick off on Saturday, chances are they will be six points behind Real Madrid. With El Clasico just over a week away it is paramount that the gap is no more than three points, leaving the Blaugrana a chance to leapfrog their great rivals with a win at the Bernabeu. However, that’s assuming that Real Madrid win their match on Saturday afternoon.
Given Xabi Alonso’s suspension and Cristiano Ronaldo’s slight injury, Mourinho will be without two of his best and most influential players for a tricky trip to Gijon. The last fixture between the two ended 1-0 in Gijon’s favour, at the Bernabeu no less. Their home form is nothing to be sniffed at, with the Asturians unbeaten at home bar from a 1-0 loss to FC Barcelona.
Manuel Preciado has built up a reputation as Jose Mourinho’s nemesis after their feud last season, and with ex-Barca defender Alberto Botia on the books, there is plenty of added motivation for the side. Factor in their physicality, and it could be a tough night for Los Merengues, who knows, maybe one or two Madrid players will be on the receiving end of some "heavy" tackling that could leave a mark before El Clasico?
Should Madrid fail to win, the task at hand will be much easier for Barcelona. It would leave them four points behind at kick-off (possibly three if Real lose) and a win against Levante would reduce that gap down to a single point, or eliminate it completely. An unlikely situation, but a glimmer of hope for us Culés if/when we watch Madrid play before our match.
Bringing us onto the match with Levante, it should be noted – just like with Gijon vs Madrid – how impressive Levante have been, and just how much of a threat they will pose. To call them the surprise package of the season would a major understatement. Starting the season with two draws, it seemed like Levante were destined for a long and arduous season battling for survival, but a run of seven consecutive wins dispelled any fear of a relegation battle.
In amongst that run was a 1-0 win over Real Madrid, something the Blaugrana must watch and learn from. Levante stifled Mourinho’s side and utilised the frustration of the Real players to work a man advantage before Arouna Kone delivered the coup de grâce. Of course, Real have gone onto to decimate all comers after that defeat, but it does prove that Mourinho’s side are vulnerable.
Levante sit in fourth place in the table, and a win, however unlikely it may be, would put them within two points of Barcelona with a game in hand. Needless to say, this situation must be avoided at all costs. That is why I would opt for the same XI that will start next weekend in El Clasico if possible. I understand that Gerard Pique is suspended, but aside from that it would beneficial for Guardiola to settle on a system and give the players time to adjust.
Of course, it could be an opportunity to start the mind games by selecting a system, and hoping Mourinho believes that is the one we will opt for in a week’s time. Either way, it’s going to be hard to predict what Guardiola is going to do. Personally, I would opt for a 3-4-3 tomorrow, if just to break down the Levante defense. It would compensate for the absence of Gerard Pique and facilitate Cecs Fabregas in the midfield.
Victor Valdes would start in goal, looking to preserve this perfect defensive record at the Camp Nou. No team had kept 11 consecutive clean sheets at home in La Liga, meaning that the Blaugrana broke yet another record and it would be a shame if we couldn’t add to it. Ahead of him in the 3-4-3 would likely be Carles Puyol, Dani Alves and Eric Abidal, although Javier Mascherano could easily deputise for any one of them. I have my own "plan" for El Clasico that could help negate the attacking prowess of Los Blancos, though I feel it would be unnecessary here.
Ahead of them should be the first choice midfield quartet of Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, but again, Pep could easily substitute in Thiago Alcantara or Seydou Keita. The emphasis should be on creativity to break down a stubborn defense, but Keita’s physicality could be welcomed in the midfield. The four man midfield will naturally retain possession and carve out chances, but it is just a question of whether the attack can finish them.
Alexis Sanchez was impressive in midweek and should start against Levante. David Villa grabbed himself a goal, and he may start also, with Lionel Messi almost certainly completing the strikeforce. Only one team have stopped Messi from scoring at the Camp Nou this season in league competition, and as Levante cannot possibly sign Javi Varas, it would take a brave man to bet against Messi from scoring tomorrow.
All in all, it is hard to assess this game without an eye on El Clasico, and this is something Guardiola must battle against. Sure, they must have Madrid in mind, but they cannot allow themselves to be distracted and throw any more points away. In fact, the pressure is on Real to win the league, so why don’t they just forget about Madrid entirely and just do what they do best?
Match Prediction: Barcelona to edge it 2-0, with goals from Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez