FC Barcelona will be looking to put their disappointing draw against Villarreal behind them tomorrow when they travel to the Mestalla to face Valencia in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. Considering the fight Valencia put up last time we visited the Mestalla, this game is by no means a straight-forward affair. In fact, given recent form, I would be happy with a score draw.
Unai Emery’s side have not been in the best form as of late, with no win in their past four league games, although obviously they won in the Copa to reach this stage. Dispatching Levante with an alarming ease, it is fair to say that this is Valencia’s best chance at silverware this season, and perhaps for many seasons to come. On the other hand, Barcelona are still competing in three competitions and have already won a further three.
Crisis? What crisis?
Pep Guardiola has no fresh injury concerns heading into the match tomorrow, and Alexis Sanchez is officially at 100% fitness. While the Chilean has been injury-prone to say the least, it is clear from the stats that Alexis is vital to this team, with his seven goals and three assists from 12 league matches. Then you notice that he has only finished five of those games, two as a substitute appearance, and his record becomes extra-ordinary. With the rest of the team struggling for motivation, Alexis could be vital in the weeks and months to come.
Back to the Valencia match, and despite all the criticism, Jose Manuel Pinto will take his place in the Barcelona goal. I agree, his distribution is below-par for the Blaugrana, and he is susceptible to high lines of pressure, just like the pressure Emery will no doubt implement tomorrow. However, we must not be too hard on him, it is so difficult to play well as a goalkeeper after so long on the bench, and any saves he makes should be applauded, rather than forgotten. It is worth pointing out at this stage that he made countless saves to deny Real Madrid the win last week, he cannot be that bad.
Given the defense ahead of him, I argue that he should not receive as much of the flak, why not the world-class defenders for putting him in that position? Hopefully, tomorrow will not see Pinto in any significant trouble.
Defensively, Pep must not repeat the error he made last time out against Valencia, so no 3-4-3. It was torn to shreds by the left-wing combination of Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu, and I would guess that similar might happen if he opted for it tomorrow. Simply, there is too much to lose at this stage, it would be far better if Barcelona could squeeze out a result tomorrow, before getting back to their best at the Camp Nou.
Carles Puyol may start at centre-back, although I think that tomorrow could see Javier Mascherano moved back into the heart of the defense. Recent matches have seen Masch deployed in his favoured position of defensive midfield, and it hasn’t worked. Mascherano hasn’t played particularly well – there is no play for him to destroy most of the time – and it has also made the rest of the team worse as Busquets is not in his proper position.
Therefore, here’s hoping Mascherano makes the switch back to centre-back sooner rather than later. Alongside him or Puyol tomorrow should be Gerard Pique, more out of necessity than anything else. There is a slight possibility that Jordi Gomez could make his first team debut, but such a move would be unlikely in such an important game. Dani Alves can start at right-back, while Eric Abidal will probably take his slot at left-back.
Jonathan dos Santos has been called up to the squad and he could be a dark-horse to start at holding midfield in place of Sergio Busquets. Xavi has not been at his best in recent matches either and I would petition for a start for Thiago Alcantara, who was inexplicably left out of the XI on Saturday. His arrival on the pitch instantly lifted the team, if only for his dribbling skills to get out of tight situations. If he starts tomorrow, I have a feeling he could show us all what he is made of. Dare I say it, but with Xavi in the middle of a blip, there could be starting place up for grabs...
The other midfield spot could be handed to Sergi Roberto, although I feel Cesc is likely to get the nod. Moving on to the attack, and Lionel Messi will start in the middle, likely to be supported by Alexis Sanchez and (in my opinion) Adriano. Isaac Cuenca has been great this season, but Guardiola has been hesitant to start him away from home, particularly in the more volatile matches. There is a possibility that Cristian Tello will start on left wing, and I would love to see him play, but given the situation, he could be of more use as an impact substitute.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to scrape a 1-1 draw, meaning that vital away goal.