Barcelona travel to Pamplona tomorrow to face Osasuna in the return leg of their Round of 16 Copa del Rey clash. The Blaugrana hold a 4-0 advantage from the first leg, but it is worth noting that no team have escaped the Reyno de Navarra with a win in the first half of the season. On the other hand, the most difficult game they have played at home so far was against Sevilla, so Barcelona should be the first team to thoroughly test Jose Luis Medilibar’s side.
Lying in wait for Barcelona should they progress through the competition is a quarter-final against Real Madrid, after Jose Mourinho’s side scraped through 4-2 on aggregate after a spirited couple of showings from Malaga. Crucially, Alvaro Arbeloa was sent off in last night’s match, meaning a suspension for the next Copa match which will be held at the Bernabeu. Also one yellow card away from a suspension are Pepe, Gonzalo Higuain, Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos and Lassana Diarra, and considering the volatile nature of El Clasico, there would likely be a few suspensions for the return leg which would be held at the Camp Nou...
But I’m getting ahead of myself, Barcelona still have 90 minutes before they can even think of another Clasico.
Dani Alves has been left out of the squad as a precaution after the Brazilian felt a little discomfort in his right leg, while Andres Iniesta and Maxwell have been left behind for "technical reasons" according to the official website. It all sounds a little ominous, but in the case of Maxwell, it can be explained easily enough. Whether you have seen the rumours or not, it has become clear that Maxwell will not remain an FC Barcelona player for too much longer.
Paris St. Germain have lodged a bid for the ex-Inter Milan fullback, and Guardiola said in his press conference today that Maxwell would like to accept it. Personally, I will be sad to see Maxwell go, he has been an underrated and underused member of the squad for a couple of years now, although I do understand why first-team football has been hard to come by. Eric Abidal is well, Eric Abidal, and Adriano has proved his versatility makes him a valuable back-up, and that’s before you factor in his age compared to Maxwell. Regardless, when the transfer becomes official, we can discuss it further on the site.
Getting back to match in question, Jose Pinto will start in goal, but he still hasn’t signed his new contract. I assume that there is nothing stopping him, although part of me thinks that Pinto is qaiting to hear/see what Guardiola does before making it concrete. Pinto is clearly not a first team regular, and if Pep does leave (that’s a very big if) he will have to convince the new manager that he is worth keeping at the club, never mind as a suitable understudy to Victor Valdes. If and when Pinto signs that contract, I believe we can assume that Guardiola will follow suit.
Aside from that decision about his future, Pep has a massive decision to make for tomorrow’s match: stick with the 3-4-3 after the dismal weekend showing or revert back to the 4-3-3? The 4-3-3 is a tried and tested tactic that has been immense over the past couple of seasons, including away from home. The 3-4-3 has been equally, if not more dominant at the Camp Nou, but aside from the Bernabeu it simply has not worked for the Blaugrana away from home. Is it any surprise that Barcelona find themselves five points behind Real Madrid given the tactical uncertainty away from the Camp Nou?
Just as a quick aside from the Osasuna match, the 3-4-3 has worked at few stadiums across the world. At the Camp Nou, the pitch is incredibly wide, not to mention fairly long as well. The same can be said about the Bernabeu, even if the dimensions are a little smaller, while I would bet my bottom dollar that the Nissan Stadium in Yokohama follows the same pattern. It is clear that without that extra space, the middle of the pitch (or the wings depending on Pep’s setup for that given day) becomes congested, easy to defend and ultimately leads to a lack of creativity instead of the opposite.
Therefore, the default home formation should be a 3-4-3, and depending on personnel, the size of the pitch and the calibre of opposition, the 4-3-3 should be the default for away matches. If certain criteria are met (i.e. those listed above and other factors) the 3-4-3 can be used.
Now, with that in mind, I would opt for the 4-3-3. With progress virtually assured (who thinks Barcelona will lose upwards of 4-0 with seven first team players?) it is a no-risk match which will allow the players to grow accustomed to any switch back, but more importantly, it provides Guardiola with an opportunity to do a "litmus test" on the old formation. If Barcelona beat Osasuna in Pamplona, one would assume that the 4-3-3 is still in working order in spite of Pep’s instance of this evolution into a 3-4-3 à la the Dream Team.
In addition to providing defensive stability and offensive opportunities, it will accommodate some of the players. Martin Montoya could start at right-back for example, which in itself is reason enough for me to switch back. The right back slot has been a weakpoint in the 3-4-3, and Alves has been ineffectual in a right-wing position, so it makes sense that Barcelona could switch back to the 4-3-3.
With Montoya on the right hand side, I would partner him with Andreu Fontas or Gerard Pique, depending on how many players Pep can/will rest. Fontas is struggling to make an impact on the first team, but he would be motivated to show his worth if given a chance. When you factor in the complacency shown by Gerard Pique on occasions this season, it makes sense for Fontas to be given a shot.
I would like to see Eric Abidal given 45-60 minutes to regain any lost match fitness/shake off the few remaining cobwebs, especially as he could then be rested at the weekend ready for that potential Clasico next week. That would leave the left-back position for Adriano, making it slightly ironic that Maxwell is leaving the club for first team football. Adriano has been battling with niggling injuries recently, and this is a good chance for him to ease back into a full game and showcase his attacking ability on the overlap.
Moving onto the midfield, Sergio Busquets may start in defensive midfield, but again, with one eye on the (possible) Clasico and on the crucial league encounter with Real Betis, I would push for a start for Javier Mascherano. At Liverpool, Mascherano made his name as a holding midfielder, and while he has been a revelation at centre-back, there is no escaping the fact that La Jefecito is still a defensive midfielder. Even if he doesn’t "fit" into a typical Barcelona midfield, his ability to drop back, and ultimately destroy play would allow Montoya and Adriano to venture forward without consequences. The seamless transition to a hybrid 3-4-3 was what set Barcelona apart from their rivals; in part it was down to the "shock" of this fluid transition for the opposition, but I would argue that it is mostly down to the lack of a set position for almost every player, making it impossible to man-mark, or even zonal mark.
It places an emphasis on the two other central midfielders, and Pep Guardiola might choose both Thiago and Sergi Roberto to fill those gaps. The pair were obviously schooled at La Masia making them ideal "replacements" for Xavi and Andres Iniesta, if only for a game. It would mean no space for Cesc Fabregas (unless Cesc plays as a false #9), but everyone has to rest at some point!
In attack, Lionel Messi will almost certainly start, just because of his insatiable appetite for football, and Guardiola’s seeming inability to deny Messi his game time. Admittedly, there are much much worse traits to have as a football manager, but one has to question the decision to play Messi in such a meaningless match, especially as it is away from home (no need to appease the fans), and more importantly, because Barcelona cannot afford Messi to tire, or God forbid, pick up an injury...
Isaac Cuenca can operate as the right-winger, and it will be good to see the winger in action again. With the demanding schedule ahead, Isaac Cuenca will become a very important player; it is paramount he continues his good form. Equally, Pedro must find his scoring boots, with far too much emphasis on Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas for goals contributing to the five point gap behind Real Madrid. That’s a topic for another day. Expect Barcelona to set up a Clasico showdown, and hopefully with gusto.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to progress with another win, I would plump for a 2-0 win given Osasuna’s injury ravaged squad and the lack of importance placed upon the match by Medilibar. I'm Peptimistic!