Tomorrow evening, FC Barcelona will take to the field in Pamplona to face one of the surprise packages of last season Osasuna at the newly-named Estadio El Sadar. Previously known as the Reyno de Navarra – which (when translated literally) meant the "Kingdom of Navarra" – Osasuna are renowned for their fearsome home form and last season was no different as Los Rojillos earned 34 of their 54 points at home. While they capitulated when Real Madrid came to town, they did defeat the Blaugrana in last season’s corresponding fixture. Will they be able to repeat that historic win tomorrow? Well, they will certainly feel as though this is the "perfect" time to play Barcelona.
Tito Vilanova on the other hand disagrees. While he acknowledged the upcoming second-leg of the Spanish Supercopa, he insisted that the best way to prepare for the Clasico was with a win tomorrow. With Barcelona’s improved squad depth, Tito has the option of resting a few key players tomorrow evening without significantly weakening the team. For example, in Cesc Fàbregas, Alex Song, David Villa and Jordi Alba, the Blaugrana had roughly €100 million worth of talent in reserve on Thursday, not to mention the likes of Carles Puyol and Cristian Tello who may not have cost a dime in transfer fees, but are still excellent footballers nonetheless. Spoilt for choice in terms of team selection, despite last season’s defeat there can be no doubting that Tito Vilanova’s side are the favourites.
With no new injury concerns, Barcelona have been boosted by the news that both Thiago Alcântara and Eric Abidal are edging ever closer to returns. Thiago tweeted earlier in the week that he wishes to be playing again "in a few days", although by that he almost certainly means training with the rest of the squad. Abidal on the other hand took to Facebook to announce his good news, which is that he is now training indoors, but given that he lost 7kg after his liver transplant, the Frenchman is still some way off a full recovery.
Moving onto the team news for tomorrow’s match, Tito has opted to leave Ibrahim Afellay, Jonathan Dos Santos and Andreu Fontas behind, meaning that seventeen of the eighteen players that were in the squad for the Real Madrid match have travelled to Pamplona with Alex Song, Marc Bartra and Martin Montoya completing the squad. Will Alex Song make his Barcelona debut tomorrow?
Victor Valdés will start in goal tomorrow as despite his error against Real Madrid, he remains the best option in goal. However, if he makes another mistake tomorrow (however unlikely that may be), it might take a little more than a few references to past glories to save his place in the team. On the other hand, a clean sheet will go some way towards regaining the trust of some fans who are starting to get frustrated with the frequency of his mistakes.
Defensively, Dani Alves is likely to start at right-back, although it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see Martin Montoya feature at some stage, potentially from the start with another Clasico to come on Wednesday night, followed by a crucial match against Valencia at the Camp Nou – Alves needs his rest after all. After starting against Real Madrid on Thursday, I don’t think that both Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano will start tomorrow, meaning that we could see Carles Puyol return to the starting XI, or even Alex Song if Tito feels particularly adventurous. For what it’s worth, I think that Song should debut alongside Carles Puyol, but whether tomorrow is that day remains to be seen. Completing the defense at left-back should be Jordi Alba, who sat out the majority of Thursday’s game, and after his dominant performance against Real Sociedad, I’m certain that Marc Bertran or whoever starts right-back for Osasuna will be simply dreading tomorrow’s match.
Sergio Busquets should start at pivote, although Alex Song is likely to make his debut at some stage, and as mentioned above, it could be from the start of the match. Given that Tito addressed Song in his pre-match press conference and specifically listed that he is capable of playing centre-back and in defensive-midfield, it appears as though Song is unlikely to take game-time away from the likes of Sergi Roberto and Thiago, much to my relief! Despite featuring in the past two match-day squads, Sergi Roberto did not travel to Pamplona; instead he joined us with the B team in Madrid, ready for El Mini-Clasico. So I predict that Cesc Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta will get the nod in the middle of the park with Xavi likely to replace Iniesta at a later stage in the game (if all goes to plan) so that the latter can rest a little before the match at the Bernabeu.
Offensively, Lionel Messi will start, and will probably score or assist at some stage, and after a goal-scoring performance against Real Madrid which some labelled as "disappointing", he better make sure that he scores multiple times to keep everyone happy. All joking aside, it’s worth remembering that Messi is only human, and cannot score on demand. Instead it takes good passes from his teammates and many other factors which are beyond his control. He played a smart game against Real Madrid, and remains as vital as ever. If anyone disappointed against Real Madrid, it would have been Alexis Sanchez. After such an impressive pre-season, the Chilean looked set to have a great season, but against Real he looked predictable, and at worst, uninterested in the task at hand. Likely to start tomorrow, Alexis has the chance to instantly redeem himself, and I fear that if he does not, then he may lose his place in the starting XI. Pedro could start again tomorrow, but having started the previous two games he may find himself on the bench if only to rest ahead of the next two games, which are arguably more important than tomorrow’s clash. In that situation, I think Cristian Tello would start, although it is possible that David Villa could start a competitive fixture for the first time in 2012.
Jose Luis Mendilibar has called up the same eighteen players that were taken to A Coruña were Osasuna were defeated 2-0 in Super Depor’s fist match since their return to the Primera Division. That means there is no room in the squad for new signing Anthony Annan while Nano and Emiliano Armenteros continue to miss out through injury. Barcelona need to watch out for Roland Lamah’s pace, especially if the Belgian comes off the bench for the second match in succession, while Raoul Loe was excellent the last time these two sides met.
CA Osasuna 3-2 FC Barcelona – 11th February 2012 – La Liga
Somewhat ironically, Barcelona’s last meeting with Osasuna came the week after their last meeting with Real Sociedad (excluding last week’s encounter), although this match did not end in a Blaugrana victory. Osasuna raced into an early two-goal lead courtesy of a brace from Dejan Lekic with Raul Garcia scoring the decisive goal in-between strikes from Alexis Sanchez and Cristian Tello.
FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Song, Fàbregas, Iniesta; Sanchez, Messi, Tello
CA Osasuna (4-2-3-1): Fernandez; Bertran, Arribas, Flano, Damia; Loe, Punal, Cejudo, Nino, Lamah; Llorente
Barcelona to prevail 2-0 despite the best efforts of the hosts with Cesc and Messi to get the goals