No matter the opposition, no matter the occasion, each match of football at this level requires a lot of preparation. While Frank Rijkaard seemingly left that sort of thing down to his fellow coaches, Pep Guardiola is renowned for his hands-on approach. Before every match, whether it is a cup tie with third division Hospitalet or a Clasico in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, Guardiola is given a DVD of the opposition, and he sits in his office and watches that DVD until he spots a weakness, from which he can devise a match winning strategy.
It has been these "eureka" moments that have rocketed Barcelona towards stardom, and these moments are why this club has been so successful in the past few years. Guardiola’s analysis is usually so astute that by the time he relays that information to the players, the game-plan has been perfected, and usually the Blaugrana follow this up with a victory.
So as I try to do my best Pep Guardiola impression, here’s a lowdown on three key individual battles heading into the match tonight.
Gerard Pique vs Franco Jara
The first match-up is an intriguing one; mainly because neither player is guaranteed a start at the Camp Nou. Pique’s troubles have been well-documented, if slightly over-exaggerated, while Benfica loanee Franco Jara has under-performed all season. The Argentine was expected to lead from the front for Granada, but has only managed a single goal in his 21 La Liga appearances. However, despite this, he probably boasts the biggest threat to the Barcelona defense.
Jara is a pacy customer, and while he lacks in physical presence, and therefore aerial ability, his technical ability is unparalleled amongst the Granada roster. Perhaps coach Abel Resino will opt for Uche in his place, but I believe Jara may find some joy attacking the out-of-form Gerard Pique. Jara’s speed could force a mistake out of the elegant centre-back; think of the amount of times Pique dwells on the ball in a given match; it is perfect for someone as speedy as Jara to close down, much like Barcelona did in the first year under Guardiola.
Everyone knows of Busquets ability when it comes to anchoring the Barcelona midfield. Quite simply, the Spaniard is by far and away the greatest holding midfielder in the world (in my opinion), and Busi forms a major part of how the Blaugrana operate. Sergio recycles possession quickly and efficiently, moving the ball on almost as quickly as he received it, and on the rare occasions he dwells on the ball, it is usually to pick out a superb long pass. However, because of the Cruyff philosophy, we rarely see Busquets tested defensively, but tonight’s match may be an exception.
Carlos Martins is another loanee from Benfica, and the Portuguese midfielder is also a superb passer of the ball, pulling the strings in the Granada midfield. Similar in stature to the legendary maestro, think of Martins as Granada’s Xavi, spraying passes every which way, as well as venturing forward to join the attack when possible. Martins is one of Granada’s top-scorers with three goals, and one of those goals came on Saturday to open the scoring against Sporting Gijon. Tonight it is up to Busquets to do his usual job of recycling possession as well as shackling the Portuguese playmaker. If he succeeds, then Barcelona will have negated Granada’s sole creator.
Lionel Messi vs Julio Cesar
Completing the triumvirate of Benfica loanees, we have Granada’s Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar. Don’t worry, this isn’t the same Julio Cesar that acted like a one man wall back in 2010 to deny Lionel Messi and co a spot in the Champions League final, however, chances are that Cesar will be trying to emulate his namesake tonight. On the other hand, he will have to stop Lionel Messi. The Ballon D’Or winner is in the form of his life, and when your life has been as successful as Messi’s, that’s some feat.
Leo has scored in his last seven matches for club and country, racking up 17 goals in the process, which equates to around around two and a half each game. Even if you took out the "distorting" five goals he grabbed against Leverkusen, it still ends up as 12 goals in six matches, or two goals a game. That is the Herculean task facing Cesar tonight. Not only that, but Lionel Messi needs at least one goal to keep in the race for the Pichichi, and a recent look in the history books by the club indicates that he only needs two goals to surpass Cesar’s all-time record that has been adjusted to 232 goals. What odds that Messi surpasses it tonight? I really don’t envy Julio Cesar at all, but at least his names will go down in the history books if Leo grabs a brace.