FC Barcelona return to action at the Camp Nou tomorrow evening looking to keep themselves in the title race with a win against Real Sociedad. With Real Madrid virtually assured of all three points against city rivals Getafe, Barcelona are likely to start a whopping TEN points behind Jose Mourinho’s side, which is undoubtedly the largest gap between the Blaugrana and first place since Pep Guardiola took over.
If that wasn’t depressing enough, the last time these two sides met, it ended in a 2-2 draw at La Anoeta. Needless to say, any repeat of that scoreline truly would prove the end of Barcelona’s title bid. According to various media reports and numerous interviews, the players have not yet given up hope of retaining the title. However, if they are to convince the fan base of this, then tomorrow’s match must not only deliver a win, but a dominant performance as well.
After his hijinks in midweek, I think everyone will be glad to see Jose Pinto retreat to his usual position on the bench, with Victor Valdes stepping back between the sticks. Not only does the team play better with Valdes in goal, I am pretty certain that referees prefer it when Pinto is off the field, although that’s no guarantee he will keep out of trouble. Thankfully, the renewal of Oier Olazabal means that we will only have to endure another year or so of minor heart failures when Valdes steps out of goal.
As Gabe pointed out in his latest article, Barcelona’s defense is actually in top form. Sure, Real caused us a whole bunch of problems, but their 70 league goals suggests that it is the same for every other team. Considering the run of games they have had to play, considering their age, and considering the forward-line is not doing their job, the defense has been exemplary.
Between them, the defense have chipped in with four goals in 2012, meaning that if they continue at the same pace and Barcelona play 56 games in 2012 (not unlikely), they will manage 32 goals. That is unlikely, but proves that the attack needs to up their collective game to compensate and allow the defenders to focus on defending. Wouldn’t that be a novel idea?
Bearing this in mind, I predict the return of the 3-4-3, if only to try and create multiple chances for the attack to convert. This would enable Guardiola to rotate his aging backline ever so slightly, ensuring that they are fresh for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. It’s a win-win situation in my books, unless of course the defenders that do play are unable to deal with the Sociedad attack, although that could be rectified easily during the game.
I propose a trio of Dani Alves, Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano, with Pique in the middle to deal with aerial balls, which are likely to be floated in towards powerful centre-forward Imanol Agirrexte. The Basque forward caused a whole bunch of problems for Barca’s defense last time out, eventually scoring one goal and contributing to the other, which was scored by French talent Antoine Greizmann.
Griezmann will be a tricky proposition on whichever wing, although I suspect that he could be utilised on the right-hand side to exploit the lack of natural width that Mascherano provides as a defender, or to pose a threat cutting onto his preferred left foot. On the other hand, he would be equally effective in his usual left-wing spot, especially if Dani Alves ventures forward. All in all, Barcelona need to nullify the Frenchman if they wish to keep a clean sheet.
To make the defense’s job easier, there is no doubt in my mind that Pep Guardiola will opt for the strongest possible midfield. Sergio Busquets is an undisputed starter in defensive midfield, while I expect Xavi to return to the starting line-up as well. Thiago Alcantara would benefit from another start, and while some people criticised him for his performance in midweek, it is worth remembering that Thiago is still only 20. He has plenty of time to develop his game, and benching him after one "average" performance (that happened to be against the third best team in Spain) is certainly the worst possible thing to do. Just ask Bojan how that worked out for him.
Thiago was an absolute gem in pre-season, but that can be attributed to an extended run of starts in the first team, as much as it can be to talent. If Cesc Fabregas is left out – for rest – this could lead to a start for Sergi Roberto, who has managed a couple of goals in his three appearances this season. Of course, goals are great for the team, but Sergi has played well as an all-round midfielder, and I think that he could be the heir to Xavi’s throne rather than Thiago or Cesc.
If Roberto gets the start, it means that we could see Thiago in the "Cesc Role", which has proven to be a hybrid of the false #9 position and a typical no.10 role, similar to that which Zinedine Zidane made famous. Personally, I think Thiago could shine in Cesc’s role, or even invent a new role that he would specialise in. Whether or not we see this tomorrow is a different matter entirely.
Offensively, I would prefer if Lionel Messi was rested, but as Gabe noted in his article, the Argentine will play so long as he has a pulse. However, he has been superb at the Camp Nou this season, and a goal or two could be exactly what he needs rather than some time on the bench. For that reason alone, he will start. Alongside him, I was impressed by Isaac Cuenca in midweek, in particular his mazy runs and that superb pass for Alexis Sanchez that effectively won the penalty. Cuenca should start tomorrow as well.
Then it gets a little more difficult. Does Pep opt for Alexis Sanchez with Valencia in midweek or does he go for Adriano, who is less effective, but could be invaluable in a 3-4-3? I would go for Adriano, if only so that Barca can switch freely between a 3-4-3 and the 4-3-3 if necessary.
With Real Sociedad coming off the back of a 5-1 win over Sporting Gijon that led to the sacking of Manuel Preciado, Philippe Montanier will be quietly confident about his team’s chances. It’s up to Barcelona and Pep Guardiola to make sure he will not be celebrating come the full-time whistle.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win 3-1