LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: Cesc Fabregas needs to regain the form he had in the first half of the season. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
This is going to be a special game, so this will be a special sort of preview that (depending on how it goes) may become a recurring sort of article.
We will take a look at what players Pep Guardiola has available for the upcoming match and try to see who will be likely to play, taking into account injuries, current form, and other statistics. Let’s dive in, shall we?
There should be no question who will start in goal, as Jose Manuel Pinto is strictly a backup except for cup games. However, Valdes’s form has been steadily declining and that is a worry. He has conceded a goal in four out of the last five games. Of course that’s not all his fault but it suggests he hasn’t been at his best.
Dani Alves and Gerard Pique have recently returned from injuries. Andreu Fontas is out with a long-term injury. Eric Abidal is recovering from liver transplant surgery, and we wish him well. The main issue is whether Pep will opt for a three- or four-man line.
After hitting his peak versus Zaragoza and Getafe, Carles’s performances have declined slightly in the past two games. Even so, he won man-of-the-match honors for his performance vs. Chelsea. A frantic, tireless player – but he recently had his 34th birthday. Is the captain up for a rest?
Oh, Mascherano. Coming off a brilliant game vs. Levante, he hit his five-game low in the loss against Chelsea. Against Levante, he was all over the place: three tackles, five interceptions, three clearances and one shot blocked. Against Chelsea, he had zero in all categories. Can el Jefecito bounce back?
The injury he sustained vs. Milan was ill-timed, as he was just starting to regain form. Since, he has featured in the bench in the last two games but not gotten on the field. Is Pep nervous about the injury or is it a tactical decision? In either case, it would be a tall order to ask him to get back from a five game layoff against Real Madrid. But the next won’t be easy either – and rotation may be necessary.
Dani missed the entire Getafe game, and came on late as a sub vs. Levante. Perhaps it’s harsh to note his full-game return vs. Chelsea was a drop from his previous two performances, but the fullback is an integral part of the team – his 15 assists rank third for Barca.
The other Brazilian fullback is the only left-back in the senior team available, so if Pep opts for a four-man line he is very likely to start. His performances have been steady, if dropping in the last two games and unspectacular as a whole.
He’s come on as a sub in two of the last five games, and his performance has been acceptable. He hasn’t had enough time to make his mark in either game, and truthfully he’s unlikely to play any of the next game… barring a strong desire to rotate or an injury.
Seydou Keita is returning from a recent injury. Again, it could be three or four men in midfield. At least one will be a holder – either Keita or Busquets.
Sergio is the one of the few to have had a better game against Chelsea than in the win over Levante. His performance against Levante was decent but below his usual standard, and I would be inclined to think of it mainly as a blip. He had a man-of-the-match performance versus Milan and Cules are anxious for him to return to his brilliant best.
Keita’s only start in the past five games was against Zaragoza and it was… pretty bad. His substitute appearance against Milan was decent but nothing special. Keita is a good bet to get a few minutes at the end of a game, and his goal-scoring is clutch although not prolific by any stretch. Pep seems to have a soft spot for him, but Keita’s performances lately have not been up to Barca’s standard.
Xavi has been good in the past five games. His low of 6.5 against Levante was partially down to only playing one half for tactical reasons, as he was doing fine. His game against Chelsea had the usual insane amount of passes with great accuracy, but he wasn’t decisive, having more turnovers than key passes. His scoring (third on the team) has proven clutch this season, and the Blaugrana may need it yet again.
Similar to Xavi as he didn’t play the entire Levante game and his slight rise in performance vs. Chelsea was more due to minutes than anything. Without a doubt, he remains one of the most talented players on the planet and his performances have been good if not always as great as he could be.
Oh, Cesc, Cesc, Cesc. His game against Chelsea was an improvement over the previous match, but only because he was basically terrible in the win over Levante. He had contributed well in the two games he featured in before that, but his overall form has dropped. His scoring touch, in particular, is nearly gone. He is second on the team in goals with 15, but only one has come in the second half of the season! His improvement is necessary, but he may be left out of the lineup for this one.
Steady, and pretty good. For a young player he’s been above-average, but the promise he has shown has led some to be a bit disappointed with his slightly unremarkable play this season. Not the likeliest to start as Pep has rotated Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets pretty well, but could be a sub.
Alexis Sanchez is doubtful for the match due to injury. David Villa is still rehabbing from a long-term injury. Ibrahim Afellay is returning from a long-term injury and has made only two appearances, both as a sub, all season. There will probably be three forwards, but it could be four.
He was in an insane form coming into the Chelsea game, scoring in 12 of his last 13 games, picking up three of the last four man-of-the-match awards. And then, the unthinkable happened – he didn’t score! OK, he had a pretty good game still, but surely he is in crisis?? I’m kidding; it’s best to accept that no human can score in every game. He remains a virtual guarantee to start, and the chances of him scoring are only slightly lower.
He was in such good form as of late, and then it all came crashing down! He had two assists and two goals in a three-game span. But his game against Chelsea was poor, and worse, he picked up an injury that means he may be unavailable for el Clasico. Still remains the team’s second-most talented forward, but let’s hope that the last game was an anomaly and he will be in perfect health quite soon. Messi cannot score all the goals by himself.
The youngster hasn’t played much, but he’s made it count several times by scoring with great frequency – seven goals in only 16 appearances, including only four starts. Because of injuries, he could get a place in the lineup. However, an appearance as a "supersub" remains the most likely.
Cuenca has gained lots of responsibility due to constant injuries in the attacking positions, and he’s made the most of it. With limited options yet again, Cuenca has a strong chance of starting. His form has been very good in the games he’s featured in; perhaps he deserves even more chances?
Just as things started to look bright – a goal in consecutive games versus Zaragoza and Getafe – it all has come down. He wasn’t too bad away at Levante, but he turned in a rather poor performance at Stamford Bridge. His scoring output is on course for being about half of what it was last season. Injuries have played their role but the loss of form is evident. However, Pedro does have a track record of scoring in big games. He still remains a good candidate to start because of injuries.
The midfield trio of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta improved in the Champions League loss despite the team in general falling. They are obviously good options and have received some rest in the last few games. Isaac Cuenca didn’t get a good chance against Chelsea, but his recent performances are good .
Valdes has been in a bit of a drop, and he will need to cut down on mental mistakes to keep his clean sheet. Alves needs to shake off any rustiness after his injury and get back to his best. Form has been a struggle for Pedro all season and he must back up his reputation as a big-game player. Messi is Messi – he’s not judged by normal standards, so he must score.
Time to bounce back
Mascherano and Alexis will be on a mission to prove their off-game was an outlier, if they get the chance. Cesc has to sort out what’s happened in the last couple games and make a big improvement.