FC Barcelona play host to UEFA Champions League chasing Malaga CF tonight as they look to at least delay Real Madrid’s title celebrations for a couple of hours with three points at the Camp Nou. Any result other than a Blaugrana win would see Jose Mourinho’s side secure the title before kick-off at San Mames, although even if Barca win, Madrid will lift the title with a victory in the Basque Country.
There are two homes games left in the Guardiola era, with both taking place this week as the Malaga match is followed by the Catalan derby on Saturday, but this is no time to get nostalgic. Barcelona will have to put in exceptional performances in both matches to come away with maximum points. that being said, if results from earlier in the season are anything to go by, tonight’s match is by far the easier of the two. Originally the game was supposed to be played as the season opener, but after the strike action it was put back to the end of January when Barcelona emerged comfortable winners with Lionel Messi netting a hat-trick in a 4-1 blowout.
Pep Guardiola has one new injury concern with Alexis Sanchez ruled out after sustaining a knock in the 7-0 demolition of Rayo Vallecano, but aside from that, it’s as you were for the Catalan coach. Gerard Pique and Xavi remain sidelined, along with long-term absentees David Villa (who is facing a race against time to be fit for the European Championships), Andreu Fontas and of course, Eric Abidal.
Malaga on the other hand are also coming off a big win (in relative terms) as they defeated Valencia by a solitary goal on Sunday, and like Barcelona they also face a tough match at the weekend, as Malaga have to travel to the Vicente Calderon to face Atletico Madrid. While no team ever goes into a match looking to throw the points, I have a feeling this match was always going to be the one that Manuel Pellegrini was expecting to lose. Whether his selection reflects that fact is another matter, but I think the Andalusians will be conserving their energy for Atleti.
Pellegrini’s team were never going to be at full-strength anyway with Enzo Maresca out injured, while Isco is serving a one-match ban. Not only that, but Jeremy Toulalan is out injured along with ex-Galactico Julio Baptista and the World Cup final starter Joris Mathijsen. With key players missing from each area of the field, Barcelona must be favourites to not only win, but to put on another master-class.
Jose Manuel Pinto will start in goal for the rest of the season, thus securing a fourth successive Zamora trophy for Victor Valdes, who has now won five overall in his glittering career. It’s an impressive achievement for Valdes, and it’s even better than while he is resting and preparing for next season we can call upon another Zamora winning keeper in Pinto. Again, his passing is not as good, but in a way that isn’t a bad thing as Barcelona merely kept possession higher up the field against Rayo, and the result shows that it worked out pretty well.
Defensively, I expect a recall for Dani Alves at right-back after his cameo appearance against Rayo, while in the centre of defense Carles Puyol is almost certain to start alongside Javier Mascherano, although I have seen a few unconfirmed rumours that Masch picked up a knock on Sunday, which could open the door for Marc Bartra to make a rare start. Then, at left-back Adriano should start, especially after being rested for the final half-hour at Vallecas.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets is likely to start, but may be rested with the Catalan derby in mind with Seydou Keita likely to deputise in that situation. With Xavi still out there is a chance that Cesc Fabregas will return to the starting line-up in place of Thiago Alcantara, but such a decision would be extremely harsh on young Thiago. Aside from Lionel Messi, and possibly Alexis Sanchez, Thiago has been Barcelona’s most consistently dangerous attacking threat in the past few matches. Against Bilbao he dominated the midfield, and the stats indicate that he did similar in a Clasico even if the team fell to a loss, while his performance against Rayo was equally superb. With Andres Iniesta likely to replace Seydou Keita, I can’t see Pep rotating the other midfield position meaning Cesc might have to settle for a place on the bench.
Offensively, Lionel Messi will start in search of a goal or three as he looks to claim the Pichichi, and on that topic, I’m making the prediction that Messi will finish the season with 50 league goals. It may be seven more goals, but if anyone can do it, it’s Lionel Messi. A hat-trick tonight would move him onto 46 goals, and a brace in the final two games would move him up to that half century mark. Also, if he did score a hat-trick, I wonder if any other player has scored two hat-tricks in the league against the same opponent in the same season...
Anyway, Pedro should start after his brace, while the other place could go to either Isaac Cuenca or Cristian Tello, with Ibrahim Afellay a very unlikely candidate. Personally I would go for Tello so that Pedro can continue on the right-hand side where he excelled on Sunday.
Predicted Line-Up: Pinto; Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano; Busi, Thiago, Iniesta; Messi, Pedro, Tello
Match Prediction: Barcelona to put on a show, maybe another Manita? I’m going for a 4-1 win with Messi getting at least two.