FC Barcelona will look to return to winning ways tomorrow and put Wednesday’s defeat to Celtic firmly in the past when they travel to Real Mallorca in Sunday’s early evening kick-off. Thanks to the odd start time, Barcelona can extend their lead at the top to six points and also move eleven points clear of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, who face a tricky trip to Levante. Who knows? With a plethora of injuries to contend with at a difficult venue, Los Blancos might falter – it’s up to Tito Vilanova to ensure that Barca do not.
Given the difficulties Barcelona faced on Wednesday, the Blaugrana will almost certainly be grateful to return to La Liga action where – for the most part – they have found life so straight-forward. Nine wins and a single draw; it’s not that Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid have been "poor" and that’s why they find themselves so far adrift, instead it’s that they simply cannot keep pace with the Catalans. Whether Barca are actually better off with Tito Vilanova in charge remains to be seen, but at current there can be no complaints on the results-front and making a leaf from the Madridista philosophy, sometimes it’s only the results that matter.
Despite the defeat in midweek, it’s actually been a decent week for the Blaugrana – well in terms of injuries anyway. Carles Puyol has returned to training, while everyone else is one week closer to a return. Gerard Piqué featured on Wednesday and as a result he may be in line for a start tomorrow, which would be a welcome boost to Barca’s depleted backline.
With regards to team selection for tomorrow’s match, Tito Vilanova doesn’t really have any major decisions to make – at least defensively. Victor Valdés will start in goal and it’s likely that Vilanova will stick with the same defense that started against Celtic. Martin Montoya is pushing for a starting berth ahead of either Dani Alves or Jordi Alba, especially after being named in Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain squad for Tuesday’s friendly with Panama. However, Montoya isn’t a natural left-back, and Dani Alves needs more game-time to rediscover his best form so I suspect Martin will have to sit out. Similarly, Piqué is pushing for a recall, but there is no real need to rush his comeback with Javier Mascherano, Marc Bartra and, dare I say it, Alex Song willing and able to fill in.
In midfield, it’s a relief that Sergio Busquets is back to start at pivote. There’s a reason why Busi was nominated for the Ballon d’Or, and the Celtic match gave us a glimpse of Busquets’ importance. Sure, Barcelona didn’t suffer in terms of possession, but they lacked so much in other departments. With Alba and Alves pushing forward on either flank, it was down to Alex Song to fill in as an auxiliary centre-half but (in my opinion) he failed miserably. Both Bartra and Mascherano had little in the way of support and Xavi also had to drop a little deeper to compensate for Busi’s absence. Whether that’s simply because Busquets is so good or whether it’s down to Alex Song’s inexperience I could not possibly say. Regardless, Busquets will start, most likely with Cesc Fàbregas in support. Barcelona missed Cesc on Wednesday; Fàbregas’ ability to play a slightly more direct style could have been the difference against such a well-drilled defense. Mallorca will probably try to follow Celtic’s lead so Cesc should be one of the first names on the teamsheet. However, who does Tito start alongside the former Arsenal captain? Andrés Iniesta was poor in midweek by his incredibly high standards, while Xavi wasn’t that much better. There’s nothing to indicate that was anything more than a one-off, so who does Tito think is better suited to face Mallorca? Personally, I would like to see Xavi start and sit out next Saturday’s match against Real Zaragoza.
In attack, Lionel Messi will start so the only question is who he will have in support. The majority of Culés would love David Villa to occupy one of those spots and thankfully El Guaje should start tomorrow. Alexis Sanchez could start on the right, as could Pedro. Maybe Cristian Tello is an outsider? It’s hard to tell, but at the moment I think the Chilean is going to get the nod, although I’m often wrong!
Currently languishing in 15th place, Mallorca are under-achieving this season although you can never quite count a Joaquin Caparros side out. Mallorca will be well-drilled, dangerous on the counter and perhaps most importantly, they will not be afraid of the Blaugrana. They have decent players across the board: from Dudu Aouate to reported Barca target Ximo Navarro to Blaugrana loanee Andreu Fontas and the free-scoring Tomer Hemed; Mallorca will cause Tito Vilanova’s side a few problems. Unfortunately former Barca starlet Giovani dos Santos is set to miss out through injury, and given that Mallorca are without a win in their last six matches, Barcelona will be quietly confident of securing all three points tomorrow evening.
RCD Mallorca 0-2 FC Barcelona – 24th March 2012 – La Liga
Barcelona – who were far from their best – overcame the dismissal of Thiago Alcântara to secure all three points at the Iberostar, with goals courtesy of Lionel Messi and Gerard Piqué.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Bartra, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Sanchez, Messi, Villa
Mallorca (4-2-3-1): Aouate; Navarro, Anderson, Geromel, Bigas; Fontas, Pina; Arizmendi, Victor, Nsue; Hemed
After falling short in midweek, Barcelona will be keen to make a statement tomorrow evening and Mallorca – without a win in six – may find it hard to resist the Blaugrana. However, Barca’s performances away from home have not been entirely convincing and I think it could be a relatively close encounter. I’m going for a 2-0 away win