We’re getting closer. In a little over 24 hours, FC Barcelona will take to the field in London to face Chelsea in their UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg. Both teams are looking for a little revenge after the infamous 2009 encounter; Chelsea’s motive is obvious, but Barcelona would love nothing more than to show the world that refereeing decisions are not the driving force behind their success.
While Pep knows, and indeed we all know that Barcelona have won two Champions League titles in the last three seasons because of their hard work, determination and sheer superiority, he also knows that the Barcelona name has also been sullied by the accusations of Jose Mourinho and some of the general public. UEFAlona is a popular insult, one that even Pep can’t entirely dismiss. You got a sense of it when he was asked about the penalty at the Camp Nou against Milan; his answer was direct, to the point, he feels personally disrespected by these accusations against his team’s ability. Tomorrow evening, Guardiola and Barcelona can go some way to silencing those critics, for the time being at least.
Aiding the Blaugrana in their quest to reach the final could well be Ibrahim Afellay, who has been named in the match-squad for the first time since his injury, way back at the start of the season. The Dutchman played a pivotal role in last year’s semi-final, although once again, I doubt he will even make the bench. On the other hand, Chelsea are without influential centre-half David Luiz, and –much like AC Milan were without Thiago Silva in the quarter-finals – it is highly likely that the Brazilian will sufficiently recover to feature in the return leg either. There are slight question marks over Gary Cahill, who has been struggling with a foot injury but is odds on to start tomorrow and John Terry will likely start again, despite his cracked ribs. Elsewhere for the Blues there are no fresh injury concerns, merely selection dilemmas for Roberto Di Matteo. Does he opt for Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres or both? Whatever the case, I don’t feel Guardiola will be making decisions based on Chelsea’s style, but he may well have El Clasico in mind.
Victor Valdes will start in goal as per usual, and ideally we will see the Valdes we all know and love, rather than that doppelganger that has been taking his place between the sticks in key matches. For example, his error against Real Madrid was pretty disastrous, while the less said about that feeble attempt at collecting a corner on Saturday, the better. Usually Valdes rises to the occasion, but increasingly I have noticed those moments of jaw-dropping brilliance are being diluted by schoolboy errors. They are few and far between, but enough to cause some concern heading into the most important week of the season.
Defensively, Guardiola has the luxury of a selection dilemma; does he opt for his captain Carles Puyol at left-back, or Adriano? Bearing in mind El Clasico, I would be tempted to start with the Brazilian, but equally I would worry about Barcelona’s height in set pieces or lack thereof without Puyol. It’s a tough decision, one that may not even be a decision as such, as it does assume that Puyol cannot start both games, which he most certainly can. I mean no disrespect to Chelsea, but I feel that if Puyol had to miss one game out of the two, I would choose this one.
Dani Alves is a nailed-on starter at right-back, while Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique are expected to reform their successful if inconsistent partnership in the centre of defense. However, given that Pique has not started since his injury, there is a chance that he is not yet ready for a starting berth and Puyol may be forced to cover at centre-back. Considering that I am in favour of a start for Adriano, I would like Barca to start with Pique and substitute Puyol in around the hour mark, but I suspect the more likely choice is for both Puyol and Pique to start.
Midfield will be straight-forward: Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are all expected to start, with Cesc Fabregas the only player even remotely likely to upset the usual trio. Xavi’s Achilles was a problem at the weekend, but with the pitch at Stamford Bridge likely to be in pristine condition, I doubt he will experience any recurrence. On the other hand, Pep may wish to play it safe and opt for Cesc in place of Xavi with a view to saving the maestro for El Clasico and the return leg, but again I stress that his perceived injury problem is unlikely to trouble him too much.
Offensively, Barcelona do have a plethora of options, especially with Clasico in mind, but there is one certainty: Lionel Messi will start. Unless injured, he will start the Clasico as well, and then he will start next week at the Camp Nou. The man simply does not tire and chances are he will score at some stage in the next week, multiple times in fact. He may have failed to score against Chelsea thus far in his illustrious career, but they said similar before the Champions League final at Wembley. Aside from Messi, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez are the two likely starters, but I fancy Isaac Cuenca to get the nod over the Chilean with one eye on El Clasico, and another on exploiting Chelsea’s narrowness.
Last year we had the Clasico World Series. Now we have this week from hell. Let’s see what Barcelona are made of, let’s take a giant leap towards another final.
Predicted Line-Up: Valdes; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Puyol; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Cuenca, Messi
Match Prediction: Chelsea will make it tough, but I think Barca will find it comfortable if they make the breakthrough early - 2-0 Barca