FC Barcelona take on Spartak Moscow in tomorrow evening’s early kick-off and the Blaugrana travel to Russia knowing that a win will book their place in the knock-out stages. Spartak Moscow on the other hand need a miracle to even reach the Round of 16 as they currently sit bottom of Group G with three points from their opening four matches. Unai Emery’s side has struggled to find form in recent weeks and with a whole host of injuries to contend with, Spartak are not expected to trouble their table-topping visitors.
While Barcelona did slump to a disappointing defeat against Celtic in "Matchday Four", history suggests that it was nothing out of the ordinary. In the four years under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona only registered a single win on "Matchday Four" – and that was last season against BATE Borisov – so should we have seen it coming? Well, if recent results are anything to go by, then Barcelona should win tomorrow evening and make it five successive "Matchday Five" wins.
Marc Bartra injured his thigh in training on Sunday and will therefore miss tomorrow’s clash, but aside from that Tito Vilanova has no new injury problems to contend with – which is a minor miracle by our standards. Plus, while the Bartra injury is an inconvenience, at least the kid has good timing – with Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué back, not to mention a rested Javier Mascherano ready for action, Bartra was unlikely to see significant game-time in the next few weeks anyway.
Anyway, getting back to tomorrow’s game, Victor Valdés will start in goal looking for his sixth clean sheet of the season. Given that the Blaugrana had amassed 13 clean sheets at this exact stage of last season, it’s a worrying problem – especially as Gabriele Marcotti notes that both Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol had played less at the start of 2011/12. Clearly the problem does lie elsewhere, although Inder’s recent post argued that possession (or the lack thereof compared to previous seasons) is the issue. Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter – as long as Barcelona continue to win.
In defense tomorrow, expect to see Dani Alves reclaim his place at right-back despite Martin Montoya’s impressive performance against Real Zaragoza. However, that’s not to say the Spaniard will have to settle for a place on the bench. Jordi Alba has been playing a lot of minutes recently and could be due a rest, whether Tito will agree remains to be seen. Gerard Piqué will start at centre-half although I would expect Javier Mascherano to start ahead of Carles Puyol after sitting out Saturday’s win.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets returns from suspension to start at pivote, with Cesc Fàbregas likely to start alongside him. Fàbregas was also rested on Saturday and has been in terrific form this season, registering eight assists and five goals in his 17 appearances. But who will start alongside Cesc in midfield? Does Tito opt for Xavi, or Iniesta?
Moving onto the attack, Tito Vilanova is expected to field an unchanged strike-force from Saturday’s win, although I suspect that Andrés Iniesta may be moved to the left-wing with Pedro and Lionel Messi in support. David Villa has been in good form recently, but he has performed better off the bench and the same can be said of Cristian Tello – who scored a memorable brace off the bench in last season’s Round of 16 second-leg clash with Bayer Leverkusen. Gerard Deulofeu made the 21-man squad and has travelled to Moscow, but one would think the youngster is unlikely to feature.
Spartak are facing something of a considerable injury crisis with nine players set to miss out. That list includes two goal-keepers – although first-choice Andriy Dikan should return after roughly two months on the sidelines. The Ukrainian made the bench for Saturday’s match against Volga and even if he is not at 100%, Unai Emery will be praying that Dikan can recover enough to keep Sergey Chernyshuk out of goal and out of the spotlight. Nicolas Pareja is suspended, while Sergei Parshivlyuk, Aiden McGeady, Romulo, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Welliton are sidelined with injury.
Spartak Moscow: WDWLWD
FC Barcelona 3-2 Spartak Moscow – UEFA Champions League – 19th September 2012
Barcelona fought back to secure victory at the Camp Nou in an unpredictable group stage encounter. Cristian Tello put the Blaugrana ahead although goals from Dani Alves (OG) and Romulo turned the tie in the favour of the visitors. However, Lionel Messi’s late brace put Barca back ahead and ultimately won the game.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Messi, Fàbregas, Pedro
Spartak Moscow (4-2-3-1): Dikan; Makeev, Suchy, Insaurralde, D. Kombarov; Carioca, Kallstrom; K. Kombarov, Ari, Jurado; Emenike
Barcelona have only won one game in Russia, but are also unbeaten with five draws to their name. I’m going for another draw tomorrow – 2-2 for me.