FC Barcelona travel to Leavnte tomorrow as they look to keep the heat on Real Madrid in what could be the most important Jornada of the season. The away trip to the Estadi Ciutat de València was always going to be difficult, but with one eye on the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg away to Chelsea, and some even looking ahead to El Clasico, this will be a real test for the squad, and Pep Guardiola. Does he chose to rest the star names in lieu of the tough fixtures ahead, or does he trust that his first choice XI can handle the rigours of the next 10 days?
Thankfully, Ibrahim Afellay has been given medical clearance, and thus could have made his long-awaited return tomorrow, conveniently just in time for El Clasico and the Champions League semi-finals. Is it a coincidence that Afellay returns bang on time for the fixtures he thrived in last season? Probably, but it’s a psychological boost nonetheless. Will he feature tomorrow? Well, he hasn’t been included in the 18 man squad, so I guess that’s our answer. Wherever you look, however you look, there’s a plethora of difficult choices for Guardiola to make tomorrow.
Tomorrow’s opposition Levante have been undoubtedly the surprise story of the season, and despite a recent downturn in form, they remain in fifth place just two points off fourth place Malaga. Should they put together a late surge and force their way into the Champions League I’m sure all of Spain will rejoice; it’s a wonderful story. In fact, Levante’s success goes some way to showing how mismanaged some of Spain’s clubs are: if this little club can keep up a push for European qualification on such a minimal budget, then why can’t clubs like Sevilla or Atleti who actually have money?
In my opinion, it’s all about their experience and pride. These are players that want to make an impact in the top division before they retire, and more often than not, they have some connection to the club. Look at Spain’s three most successful clubs this season – Barcelona’s cantera connection is obvious, while Bilbao have been a revelation under Bielsa with their all-Basque policy. Levante has a variance on this policy, in that they pick up the "rejects" from Valencia, Sociedad and Bilbao etc. but the backbone of this squad are either home-grown or have been at the club for a number of years. These are players who have been with the club all through the bad times and are now enjoying the time they have in the top division. As mentioned earlier in my piece for Puyol, it goes to show that talent is no substitute for determination and effort.
Small rant aside, Levante will be giving it their all tomorrow evening, and it is vital that Barcelona do not allow themselves to think ahead to Chelsea. Up until midnight tomorrow, the focus can only be on Levante.
The hosts can call upon Xavi Torres’ experience under Guardiola to help construct an efficient gameplan to stop the Blaugrana, and curiously enough this isn’t the only link Levante have with Barcelona. Way back in 1981, Johan Cruyff played half a season for Levante in the Segunda Division before returning to Ajax. That’s about the most interesting thing I could find anyway.
Turning our attention back to the game, Pep Guardiola’s squad of 18 players is smaller than usual, but with good reason, as Seydou Keita has been suffering with some "discomfort" in his right thigh so was left in Cataluña. Whether he is borderline injured, or this is just a fabricated injury because he is on four yellow cards (Clasico next week) I’m not sure. However, as Keita is unlikely to start the Clasico I think we can trust that he is actually injured.
Victor Valdes is likely to start in goal, but bearing in mind that he has accumulated four yellow cards and that the Clasico is next week, we could see a rare league start for Jose Manuel Pinto. On the other hand, Pep could just tell him to be on his best behaviour, after all, there’s only a small chance that he will pick up a yellow tomorrow.
Defensively, Dani Alves has been named in the squad for the first time since his injury, and with that, one has to expect that he will play some part tomorrow. However, does Guardiola start Alves running the risk that he suffers a relapse and misses the next 10 days, or does he play it safe and go with Martin Montoya (who should have started Tuesday)? I think he goes for the latter, with Alves making a cameo appearance off the subs bench on the hour mark.
In the centre of defense, Gerard Pique is pushing for a start after recovering from his injury, and the prospect of Pique starting and thus allowing Javier Mascherano or Carles Puyol some time to rest must be an appealing prospect for Pep. But again, like with Alves, we cannot risk Pique getting injured either. Based on that, I think one of the normal defense will start and finish the full 90 minutes, but the two others will each play a half, or more likely an hour and a half-hour respectively. My guess is that Mascherano and Pique start, with Puyol making an appearance off the bench. That leaves Adriano as the sole choice for left-back, unless Pep wants to surprise us with a 3-4-3/3-3-1-3 again.
The absence of Seydou Keita is slightly frustrating for me, purely because I thought this match would have been perfect for Sergio Busquets to get some rest bearing in mind how pivotal he is to this team. There is still a possibility of Busi getting some rest, with Thiago the only other viable replacement, but I think Busquets is a nailed-on starter tomorrow.
Ahead of Busi, Thiago could start his third consecutive away La Liga match, although I fancy that at least of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez will start, likely to be partnered by Cesc Fabregas. Personally, I would prefer both to rest in favour of Thiago and Cesc, but it certainly wouldn’t be detrimental to our chances if one (or indeed both) started tomorrow evening. Levante will be a tough nut to crack, and with one of our Ballon D’Or nominees starting, the team is more likely to create chances and dominate possession.
Offensively, some might want to see Lionel Messi rested, but chances are that he will start, and with good reason. Without Lionel Messi, who will play in attack? I understand that there are replacements (Cesc, Thiago at a push) but then surely Messi is less prone to injury and fatigue compared to Xavi and Iniesta? His 61 goal contribution is pretty irreplaceable and combined with the likely rest for Alexis Sanchez (who is on four yellow cards) and Pedro, the likely forward line of Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello needs Lionel Messi to provide the bite.
Predicted Line-Ups: Valdes; Montoya, Pique, Mascherano, Adriano; Busi, Cesc, Iniesta; Cuenca, Tello, Messi
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win 3-1