FC Barcelona travel to the Basque Country tomorrow where they will take on Segunda B2 leaders Deportivo Alaves in their first Copa del Rey match since last season’s 3-0 final win over fellow Basque side Athletic Bilbao. Pep Guardiola was the man in charge that night, and in his time with the club it was clear that Pep valued the Copa – indeed it was the first trophy that the Catalan won as Blaugrana manager. Could Tito Vilanova follow suit and make the Copa del Rey the first title in what could be an illustrious managerial career?
Well, judging by the draw, it’s going to be tough. Alaves should not pose any real threat – although as division leaders they will be high on confidence, arguably the only factor in their favour – but after that, Barca could face sides such as Real Sociedad, Malaga, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. As I’m sure you will agree that’s hardly an ideal path to the trophy.
Tito Vilanova named a sixteen man squad for tomorrow’s match, with five notable omissions as Victor Valdés, Xavi Hernández, Jordi Alba, Pedro Rodriguez and Lionel Messi have all been left in Catalunya. The reasoning behind the decisions are obvious – some players are being rested, while some simply have no reason to travel and it means that we are likely to see a few of the fringe players given a chance to strut their stuff.
In goal, Jose Manuel Pinto should start as the Copa keeper for the fifth season in succession, although he may face competition from B team keeper Oier Olazabal. However, Pinto has excelled in recent years in this very role, and while it would be nice for Oier to gain some experience in the first team, it would also mean an awful lot to the squad if Pinto continued on in goal – such is his popularity at the club.
In defense, Martin Montoya should continue at right-back. The Canterano was excellent in Saturday’s Manita victory over Rayo Vallecano, so there is no need to drop him for performance reasons, and to be honest, I see no real need to risk Dani Alves either. Granted, the Brazilian is medically cleared to play, but Barcelona can never be too safe with the fitness of their defenders. In the centre of defense, Javier Mascherano was the surprise inclusion in the squad as I half-expected Tito to leave Mascherano out in favour of Sergi Gomez, but with Barcelona B in league action on Wednesday night, Gomez is needed elsewhere. Will Mascherano start? It’s certainly a possibility, but this match provides Tito with a fabulous opportunity to assess both Marc Bartra and Alex Song. The pair have been used sparingly at central defense this season, with experience (or lack thereof) the main reason behind that decision; so surely Tito will give them a much-needed run-out tomorrow evening? Completing the defense, Adriano is basically the only option for that left-back berth, and therefore he will be restored to that position, barring a major surprise.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets is available to start at pivote, but Jonathan Dos Santos would be the more logical option. JDS was impressive in his cameo appearance on Saturday and he will be looking to build on that encouraging performance as he bids to force his way into Tito Vilanova’s plans. Competing for the other two midfield places are Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and Sergi Roberto, with the former and the latter likely to start. Cesc has been in superb form, but with Messi resting I envisage that he will either start as the false #9 or not at all. So long as Sergi Roberto gets a chance to shine, it isn’t really important who else starts in midfield.
Moving onto the attack, the omission of both Pedro and Messi makes Barca look a little short of numbers, although there can be no arguing with the quality. Cristian Tello isn’t to everyone’s liking, but he will start tomorrow, with Alexis Sanchez and David Villa likely to start alongside the young Spaniard. That triumvirate would give Tito Vilanova a number of options – all are capable of starting as the CF or on the wing – and when you consider that’s without adding Fàbregas or Iniesta to the equation, Alaves have a difficult task ahead of them.
A little over ten years ago, Alaves were contesting the UEFA Cup final against Liverpool, eventually losing 5-4 to a Golden Goal own-goal against Gerard Houllier’s treble-winning side. However, it’s all been downhill since then. After a temporary drop into the second tier, Alaves regained top-flight status back in 2005 and looked to be "back". That return was short-lived as Alaves immediately dropped back into the Segunda and were relegated to the Segunda B in 2009, where they have stayed ever since.
Speaking ahead of tomorrow’s clash, Alaves coach Natxo Gonzalez was in a buoyant mood, even cracking a joke in his pre-match press conference. Gonzalez soon got down to business and mentioned that his side will have to go out and "compete without fear" against their illustrious opponents. Gonzalez continued, and he stated that he wants his team to show Barcelona, and indeed the world, that Alaves are not to taken lightly. Whether that hints at an offensive approach from the underdogs remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Alaves are not going to simply "make up the numbers". Segunda B2 top-scorer Guzman scored in the weekend’s win over UD Logrones, and he is likely to start in attack behind former Real Sociedad striker Borja Viguera – who was an unused substitute when the Blaugrana ran out 5-0 winners back in December 2010.
FC Barcelona 3-2 Deportivo Alaves – Copa del Rey – January 16th 2007
Javier Saviola netted a hat-trick to spare Barcelona’s blushes and secure a 5-2 aggregate win over their Segunda rivals, as a strong Barcelona XI featuring the likes of Carles Puyol, Rafa Marquez, Xavi and Ronaldinho struggled to assert their dominance against a feisty Alaves performance.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Montoya, Bartra, Song, Adriano; JDS, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta; Sanchez, Villa, Tello
Alaves (4-2-3-1): Miguel Martinez; Oscar Rubio, Luciano, Javi Hernández, Manu Garcia; Jaume Delgado, Beobide; Jonan Garcia, Sendoa, Guzman; Viguera
Barcelona should walk away with this one – expect goals and a few of them, although I suspect Alaves will put up a decent fight. I say 4-0 Barca