FC Barcelona are in UEFA Champions League action tomorrow night looking for their 100th win in the competition as they host SPL champions Celtic at the Camp Nou. The Blaugrana are heavy favourites for tomorrow’s encounter, although based on current form it could be a close-fought match between two good sides. Granted, Barcelona are streets ahead of their visitors quality-wise, but with nothing to lose and everything to gain, Celtic are not going to go down without a fight.
The Bhoys are dead-certs to retain their title this season following the demotion of their great rivals Rangers, who fell into the fourth tier as a result of their drastic money troubles. While on one hand that means that our opponents are often unchallenged in domestic action, it does mean that they can focus all their attentions on European competition – should Hoops boss Neil Lennon choose to do so anyway. However, that wasn’t the case on Saturday as Celtic fielded a strong XI in their 5-0 demolition of St. Mirren. Will they be able to pull off an upset tomorrow?
Tito Vilanova was hoping to have Gerard Piqué available for selection heading into the match, but Geri hasn’t made the squad and therefore his comeback has been postponed – most likely until Barca make the trip to Madrid to face Rayo at the weekend. Therefore, Barcelona will still be without their first-choice backline and that is something Celtic will be looking to take advantage of. On the other hand, Barca will be keen to prove a point after the weekend’s drama and it may not matter who is in defense. Whatever the case, Tito has virtually the same squad to choose his starting XI from, with the exception of Sergio Busquets who is suspended after his red card against Benfica.
In goal, Victor Valdés will start in spite of his error on Saturday; although that’s something we have grown accustomed to in recent times. The error itself wasn’t quite as bad as it was made to seem – given the design of modern footballs it’s very likely that the ball swerved in flight, which must be difficult for a keeper to judge.
Moving to the defense, Martin Montoya will continue at right-back with Javier Mascherano at centre-half. However, the other two places are very much up for grabs. With Busquets suspended, it’s possible that Alex Song could fill in at pivote, although looking at Vilanova’s squad that seems unlikely at present. If Song does play in midfield it appears as though Adriano would be favourite to play at centre-half despite Marc Bartra’s presence in the squad. Personally, I would like to see Bartra given a chance, but he surely would have featured by now if he was in Tito’s plans? If Song starts at centre-half there will be a battle for the final defensive spot – Jordi Alba or Adriano? With a goal (and an own goal to his name), Alba looks to have the advantage.
In midfield, Song could start at pivote, but Jonathan Dos Santos and Sergi Roberto made the squad, providing Vilanova with a difficult choice. JDS could be given a shot – he did look impressive in pre-season – although I would opt for Sergi Roberto who has been excellent for the Blaugrana in the Champions League. Xavi should start after spending the majority of Saturday’s match on the bench, and he’s likely to be partnered by the man he replaced against Deportivo: Cesc Fàbregas. Cesc was utterly sublime on Saturday and should be given a chance to extend his recent run of good form tomorrow.
Finally, in attack, Lionel Messi will start, presumably with Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez in support. Pedro only played a cameo against Depor, while Alexis missed out altogether, which is why I think the two will start against Celtic. Conversely, Cristian Tello played well against Deportivo as well, so it’s possible that he could challenge Sanchez for that final attacking berth.
Neil Lennon has a full compliment to choose from tomorrow, and it’s likely that he will stick with his usual team in an attempt to pull off the upset. Fraser Forster will be in goal, with Charlie Mulgrew the stand-out defender – in my opinion at least. At full-back, Emilio Izaguirre is a tricky customer and he could push for a recall after being left on the bench for Saturday’s landslide win, although it depends on Celtic’s gameplan. If they want to absorb pressure and strike on the counter, then Izaguirre is the obvious choice, but if they want to shut up shop and hope for the best, they may prefer to leave the Honduran on the bench, or push him further forward. Victor Wanyama has been an excellent signing for Lennon’s side and the Kenyan is good enough to disrupt Barcelona’s rhythm in the centre of the field. With Busquets suspended, Tito may be tempted to field Song in midfield purely to counter-act Wanyama, although that doesn’t quite seem the "Barcelona way". Gary Hooper will start in attack and the Englishman did score at the weekend, but he doesn’t quite seem as threatening as an Emenike, or a Lima – both of whom Barcelona dealt with reasonably well.
FC Barcelona 1-0 Celtic – 4th March 2008 – UEFA Champions League
An early goal from Xavi secured victory for the Blaugrana who progressed 4-2 on aggregate in this knockout tie. The match however did not go entirely to plan as a young Lionel Messi was forced off through injury.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Montoya, Mascherano, Song, Alba; Sergi Roberto, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Tello
Celtic (4-4-2): Forster; Matthews, Mulgrew, Wilson, Lustig; Forrest, Wanyama, Brown, Izaguirre; Hooper, Miku
Barcelona should win, although Celtic will put up a good fight. Barca to win by a couple of goals – 2-0 is my guess.