FC Barcelona play host to Granada tomorrow night as they look to cut Real Madrid’s lead at the top of the table to five points, for 24 hours at least. Santi Cazorla’s late equaliser last night was unexpected to say the least and has reinvigorated the Blaugrana’s unlikely title charge. Should Barcelona win tomorrow, the pressure will be on Real Madrid to deliver an emphatic win over struggling Villarreal at El Madrigal. Can they deal with the heat? Only time will tell.
Granada have performed admirably this season with a restricted budget, and while they are just seven points removed from the relegation zone, the form of the teams below them hints that with a few more points, Granada will ensure survival for another season at least, with all the financial rewards that encapsulates. Admittedly, Granada have benefitted hugely from their affiliation with Udinese (both sides are owned by Italian businessman Giampaolo Pozzo), but this remains a biblical achievement for a club that was plying it’s trade in the Segunda division B just three years ago.
The Andalusians recovered from three consecutive defeats - of which two were against sides from the top six and the other was against Atletico Madrid - to defeat Sporting Gijon 2-1 at the weekend, a victory that may have ensured them safety for another year. I may have mentioned it once already, but what a magnificent feat this is for Abel Resino’s side, bearing in mind that their top-scorer is a defender. Not only that, but Inigo Lopez has only scored four goals. I understand that La Liga is far from equal, but this is a monumental mismatch in every sense of the word.
Victor Valdes will start in goal tomorrow looking for his third consecutive clean sheet, which would be his best such run since the Club World Cup. Coincidentally, that series of matches, including the Clasico (in which Valdes conceded) was widely considered to be Barcelona at their peak. Does this mean that the Blaugrana are getting ever closer to a deafening crescendo?
Well, a lot of that depends on the defense. Dani Alves has been hit and miss in his recent appearances, almost as if he is trying to personify his shooting ability with a lot more "misses" than anything else. Alves was actually the player who made the most touches of the ball in Saturday’s game, yet I hesitate to remember a single moment where Alves looked particularly dangerous. Maybe my memory is shot, but it seems to be that Dani is struggling to find his feet away from the Camp Nou. Fortunately for us, it should be a case of home sweet home for Dani tomorrow evening.
In the centre of defense, the major question marks surround Gerard Pique and his dip in form. I addressed that this morning in the statistical look at the Sevilla match, but for those who didn’t see or need a refresher, the only way Pique will rediscover his best form is through game-time. There is no point in benching him after he makes a mistake, simply because he would never start consecutive games in that situation. So I vouch for Pique to start tomorrow, preferably alongside his good friend and mentor Carles Puyol. I always remember reading about how Puyol used to shout at Geri to concentrate, even in the 90th minute of a demolition job, and unsurprisingly we kept clean sheets back in them days!
At left-back, Adriano is probably set to start but I would like to mention how Eric Abidal has been training as normal with the squad, despite needing a liver transplant. In fact, I’m not even sure that Abidal will watch from the stands, wouldn’t it be special if he made the bench and played a part? If that should happen, it would rank among the greatest moments for this proud club.
In midfield, I anticipate no changes from the match at the weekend, with Sergio Busquets at defensive midfield, along with Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Cesc Fabregas was disappointing on Saturday, but it is easy to forget that Cesc is indeed a newcomer into the squad, and hasn’t yet found his definitive place. A little rest wouldn’t do him any harm though. There is a possibility in my mind that Seydou Keita is overdue a start, although whether or not Pep thinks the same remains to be seen.
Offensively, the Blaugrana have had good news as Ibrahim Afellay has started to train with the group, meaning a return may be imminent. Tomorrow will surely come far too soon for the Dutchman, but I for one am looking forward to his return to action, given his part in last year’s title run-in. With Iniesta likely to drop back into midfield, I think Cristian Tello will get the nod for that left-wing berth, while it is down to Alexis Sanchez, Pedro and Isaac Cuenca to fight it out for that final place with Lionel Messi guaranteed a start in the middle. Pedro is improving with each game, and I think he gets the nod tomorrow.
Predicted Line-up: Valdes; Alves, Puyol, Pique, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Tello, Messi
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win comfortably, a 4-0 does not appear out of reach.