FC Barcelona return to league action tomorrow evening with a visit across town to the Cornellà-El Prat for the Catalan derby. Pep Guardiola and company will be looking to keep the pressure on league leaders Real Madrid with a victory at a ground where they boast an unbeaten record. Since it’s opening in 2009, Barcelona have played two league matches, drawing the first 0-0 after a red card for Dani Alves, before winning 5-1 in last season’s fixture.
Despite the handsome margin of victory last time around, the official website has been running a story that is increasingly uncommon these days: Lionel Messi has not scored at this particular stadium! Added motivation if any was needed for the Argentine ahead of the Ballon D’Or ceremony on Monday.
Guardiola has no fresh injury concerns, and in fact, he will be able to count on midfield playmaker Andres Iniesta who has shaken off his knock to make the squad. Lionel Messi didn’t appear too distressed in midweek in spite of his alleged bout of flu/stomach ache, but he too is back to 100% along with Eric Abidal. This is a Barcelona side on the top of their game with as strong a squad as they will have for the remainder of the season; is there any way Espanyol can stop the Blaugrana?
No longer can they fall back on the talents of Ivan de la Pena, or the goal-scoring ability of Raul Tamudo, in fact, next to none of the current squad have played in a victory against Barcelona. Many of their key players are loanees, such as left-back Didac Vila, midfield battler Romaric and creative forward Vladimir Weiss. The squad itself is littered with youth graduates much like Barcelona, but that is where the similarities end.
The core of the side is simply too young and inexperienced to compete against the better sides in the division. While it may be one of the better technical sides in the division, excelling in possession stats and creating a fair amount of chances each game it has exhibited a certain defensive fragility on numerous occasions in this relatively young season. Take their Copa del Rey tie from Thursday as an example. Leading 1-0 against Segunda side Cordoba, they conceded twice in the final 10 minutes to lose 2-1. Granted, they were down to 10 men at this stage, but it must have been a huge knock to their confidence levels.
On the other hand, Barcelona’s could not be higher. The 3-4-3 is undoubtedly working; Pep Guardiola appears content with the personnel he has at his disposal, and crucially, they fully understand what they need to do at any given time. To my eyes at least, it appears as though Pep has had little to do in recent games. Each player knows when to commit themselves forward, and how to defend given the situation.
The win against Osasuna was especially pleasing. This was a match against an over-achieving side with nothing to lose. The potential for catastrophe was there, but it never materialised. Cesc Fabregas displayed once again why he is one of the best players in the world with a spectacular brace, partly because he and his teammates knew how to break down a stubborn defense. It didn’t matter that Osasuna had a physical advantage as the crosses were played into a specific place for a specific runner; at times it was almost too easy.
Even Jose Pinto looked comfortable in possession, the years of training and dedication to a single philosophy is truly paying off; at least they will if Barcelona can maintain their current level of success. That is why tomorrow’s game is so important: by the time you read this Real Madrid may have finished against Granada, but there is a possibility that they might drop points. Statistically, Granada are the third best side in the division over the last six games, while Real looked sluggish in their Copa match. Whatever the case, Barcelona cannot afford to drop further behind in the title race.
That is why Guardiola will field his strongest line-up possible, starting with Victor Valdes in goal. Valdes was in good form in his last match, the friendly against Tunisia for Catalonia, and he will be searching for his 18th clean sheet of the season on Sunday. Ahead of him will be Gerard Pique, presumably Carles Puyol, and I would argue that Javier Mascherano will complete the back three.
The trio looked impressive against Osasuna, barely allowing the visitors a shot on goal in midweek, and I think that the three are getting used to the 3-4-3 and the added pressure it can put onto a defense. Puyol in particular was great against Osasuna, and we nearly saw the captain grab a rare goal as he ventured forward on numerous occasions. In those instances, Sergio Busquets dropped back to defense like he does in the 4-3-3, and all was well.
In fact, when Barcelona had possession it appeared as though they were operating out of a 1-3-3-3 formation, not too dissimilar to the same tactics used by Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final. Gerard Pique was the furthest player back and the building block for the start of the attack. Ahead of him was Carles Puyol on the right, and Javier Mascherano on the left (Eric Abidal would no doubt be a suitable replacement) with Sergio Busquets as the man in the middle. Xavi, Thiago and Cesc were situated in the true midfield, although all three had license to attack, with a front-three of Alves, Cuenca and Lionel Messi. Perhaps this is the future of the 3-4-3; it certainly seemed a lot more stable than previous alterations.
Anyway, back to the preview, and I would suggest the same midfield, albeit with Thiago dropping out for Andres Iniesta. This midfield four of Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas is undoubtedly the strongest in the world, arguably of all-time, and their presence on the field ensures masses of possession with oodles of creativity.
Looking to thrive off of that creativity is Lionel Messi, although we all know that he needs little encouragement. There were a few runs on Wednesday that truly boggled the mind, even by his standards, and as mentioned earlier, this is one of the few grounds he has not scored at. Judging by his 31 goals, that record does not have long to stand at all. Along the way he will add to the creativity with his piercing runs and inch-perfect passing, and whoever completes the attack will benefit greatly.
Dani Alves is a near-certain starter for Barca, his link-up play with Messi is amongst the best in the squad but he needs to score more goals given the chances he gets each game. Sure, he is unselfish to set up teammates, but if Alves is to feature in attack more often, he simply must develop a ruthless streak to put some of those chances away.
Rounding off the attack could be one from a number of superstars, with one spot remaining for Isaac Cuenca, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez. Just because of current form I would pick Cuenca, but any of the three are good enough to put Espanyol to the sword and catch out Didac if he ventures forward too often.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win 3-0, with goals from Lionel Messi (2) and Andres Iniesta