Ibi to start?
FC Barcelona play host to city rivals RCD Espanyol in "El derbi Barceloní" in what is also Pep Guardiola’s final home game in charge of the club. It’s sure to get emotional at the Camp Nou as the reality sets in that this may well be the final time that Guardiola is in the dugout for a Barcelona match. But let’s cast that depressing truth to the back of our minds and focus on the match.
In recent years the Catalan derby’s importance has taken a back seat to El Clasico for most Barca fans, purely because Real Madrid are seen as a more direct rival despite the massive distance between the two clubs. After all, its poor little Espanyol up against the might of FC Barcelona. The Blaugrana have bigger fish to fry so to speak, and we are willing to let the Periquitos have their biannual cup final. However, now that La Liga is out of reach, this game takes on all the importance in the world – Catalan pride is at stake, not to mention Guardiola’s pride. Quite simply, Barcelona must win tomorrow.
To provide a little background on the derby, be sure to read this old gem of a piece from Bostjan, but for good measure here’s my summary. Basically, Espanyol think of themselves as the AC Milan of Barcelona, and way back when they considered Barcelona to be the team of foreigners. It reeks of xenophobia, but I guess times have changed as Espanyol’s squad consists of 13 non-Spaniards while Barcelona only have the eight (including Lionel Messi who the Argentines call Catalan anyway). Furthermore, Espanyol used to shun the use of Catalan in favour of Spanish back in Franco’s era, so of course that increased tensions greatly. However, as time has passed, the derby is a little less political, although that’s not to say there isn’t an overwhelming level of animosity between the two.
For example, Espanyol fans unveiled a banner thanking Chelsea after Barca lost to the Blues, while a season or two back the Boixos Nois marred the final Catalan derby at Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc by setting off some flares and generally causing some trouble. People have been killed as part of this rivalry, with stabbings pretty common back in the 80s and 90s according to some reports. Hopefully nothing terrible will happen tomorrow, but it puts the hatred between the two clubs into some context.
Back to the match, and Jose Manuel Pinto will start in goal for the third match in succession, and it would be great to see him keep another clean sheet. While his performance against Malaga wasn’t quite as good as his game versus Rayo, he didn’t really deserve to concede, and will be disappointed that Rondon’s header evaded his grasp. Either way, it’s great to see Pinto getting a sustained run in goal, and correct me if I’m wrong, but Pep Guardiola and Barcelona are one of the only teams to give their back-up a chance now that the season is all but over. It’s a nice touch.
Defensively, I want to see a full-strength Blaugrana backline with Carles Puyol, Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano and Adriano. On top of that, I would love to see the usual midfield trio of Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, provided Xavi is fit of course and a front-line of Lionel Messi, Pedro and either Alexis Sanchez (again, if he has recovered) or possibly Ibrahim Afellay given the injury Isaac Cuenca has reportedly picked up in training. This match should take on the utmost importance, arguably level with the Copa del Rey final, if only to serve as a reminder to those Espanyol fans exactly who’s boss in Cataluña. Espanyol always give us a stern test, pressing well, defending compactly and attacking efficiently, making this match a perfect dress rehearsal for that final with Bilbao in three weeks time.
Predicted Line-Ups: Pinto; Alves, Puyol, Mascherano, Adriano; Busi, Thiago, Cesc; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
Match Prediction: I know better than to write off Espanyol, but I trust the players will be dying to give Pep one hell of a send-off. 3-1 Barca is my guess – Messi to grab two.