FC Barcelona return to league action tomorrow looking to extend their lead at the top back to three points and place pressure on second-place Atletico Madrid, who travel to the Mestalla to face Valencia in what has to be the highlight fixture of Jornada 10. At present, Atletico are looking virtually unbeatable, especially with Falcao leading the way, but it’s possible that Atleti could falter against Los Che and hand Barca the initiative. However, Barcelona will first have to see off the challenge of Celta Vigo, back in the Primera Division after a five year absence.
Fresh off a record-breaking start to La Liga and a midweek win in the Copa del Rey, Barcelona will be full of confidence and raring to go in their first home league fixture since the 2-2 draw in El Clasico. That particular match seems like an age ago now, partially because of the Catalans fine form, and probably because it was (in football terms as least). Will Tito Vilanova’s side be able to extend their record-breaking start and banish the "disappointment" of that draw with Real Madrid?
The big news ahead of tomorrow’s game involves Barcelona’s greatest asset – a certain Lionel Messi. However, unlike the ongoing defensive crisis, this is certainly good news. Messi’s son was born today and all appears well, so Tito Vilanova expects the Argentine to feature in tomorrow’s match. Unquestionably, that would be a massive boost to the Blaugrana – Leo has scored 13 goals already in La Liga action – but if Messi wants the day off, that shouldn’t be an issue either. David Villa is in good form, as is Cesc Fàbregas and with the home crowd in support; Barca should have more than enough to see off Celta Vigo.
However, it may not be as simple as that. Victor Valdés will start in goal, but he will have to be at his best to keep Iago Aspas and the Cleta attack at bay. Os Celestes have not exactly been scoring freely as of yet, but don’t let their record fool you – they are more than capable of pulling off an upset. Valdés kept a clean sheet in his last appearance against Rayo Vallecano, and Pinto kept a clean sheet on Tuesday; could Barcelona shut Celta out for a third-successive clean sheet, a feat they last accomplished way back in March?
While a lot will depend on Valdés, the defense has an equal part to play. Dani Alves should start at right-back after a impressive return against Alaves, although the Brazilian may be rested for Wednesday’s clash with Celtic, which would pave the way for Martin Montoya to start for the third league game in succession. However, I would opt for the Brazilian, and in central defense, Tito is likely to start Javier Mascherano, possibly with Adriano Correia in support. Adriano was rested in midweek along with Jordi Alba, and why rest the two if they are both going to sit out tomorrow’s clash with Celta? The reasoning isn’t exactly sound, but based on Tito’s previous decisions it seems unlikely that Marc Bartra or Alex Song will feature alongside El Jefecito.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets should start in the holding role, although there is a possibility that Alex Song could take his place, and Xavi Hernández will return to the starting XI after sitting out Tuesday’s Copa del Rey win. However, who will start alongside Barca’s midfield maestro? Cesc Fàbregas is the obvious choice having started every league match so far this season, but he completed the 90 minutes on Tuesday and therefore may not be at 100%. Therefore, Andrés Iniesta should get the nod to start alongside Xavi and Busi for the first time since the Clasico.
In attack, Tito hinted at his team selection in the pre-match press conference. First of all, he stated that Messi should start – if that’s what the Argentine wants anyway – and secondly, he mentioned that Barca will need to press high up the field if they want to win tomorrow evening. To me anyway, that hints at a front-line of Messi with Pedro and either Cristian Tello or Alexis Sanchez. Given that Sanchez is struggling for form, this could be a good opportunity for him to grab that much-needed goal, but it could be a chance for Tello to stake his claim for a first-team place. Either way, it appears as though David Villa will have to settle for a place on the bench...
Much like Barcelona, Celta are having a little defensive crisis of their own as Gustavo Cabral is unavailable through suspension, while Samuel has been sidelined with a knee injury. That leaves Andrés Tunez as the only natural centre-half in the first-team squad although Jonathan Vila is expected to step in as a makeshift centre-half. On the other hand, will that entirely matter as tomorrow will be the return of Javi Varas to the Camp Nou. Now we all know what happened in his last appearance at the Camp Nou, and if he can replicate that kind of form then centre-backs, or no centre-backs, Celta stand a chance tomorrow.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Celta Vigo – La Liga – 28th January 2007
Barcelona left it late to see off the challenge of their visitors as two goals in the final quarter of an hour from Ronaldinho and Ludovic Giuly secured the three points after a penalty from Nene (now playing for PSG) cancelled out Javier Saviola’s opener. Jose Manuel Pinto was in goal for the visitors on that night as well.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Adriano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Tello
Celta (4-2-3-1): Javi Varas; Mallo, Tunez, Vila, Lago; Oubina, Lopez; Fernandez, Aspas, Krohn-Dehli; Bermejo
A lot depends on whether Lionel Messi starts, but assuming he does, Barcelona should run out comfortable winners. I’m going for a 3-0 home win.