Tomorrow evening, FC Barcelona will be looking to put their Supercopa defeat firmly in the past by maintaining their five-point lead over Real Madrid with a win against Valencia CF at the Camp Nou. After consecutive matches away from home yielded two unconvincing performances, Barca will be looking to put on an exhibition for the home crowd, but as Los Che proved with their opening day draw at the Bernabeu, they are no pushovers and with two draws from their opening two games, they will be equally desperate to claim all three points.
However, they are likely to have to do so without summer signing Fernando Gago who picked up a slight injury in last week’s 3-3 draw against Deportivo. The Argentine midfielder has made the squad, but even if he starts, he is unlikely to be at 100%, which bodes well for Blaugrana coach Tito Vilanova. Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona dominated possession in every match they played in, but against Osasuna their passing was unusually inaccurate, and on Wednesday Real Madrid virtually dominated the midfield in the opening half. Hopefully the combination of the Camp Nou pitch and a weak Valencia midfield will translate into a better performance.
Thankfully, Tito Vilanova has no new injury concerns heading into tomorrow’s match as Carles Puyol is technically cleared to play and Dani Alves has been training with the group as normal. But that isn’t all – Tito can also count upon Thiago Alcântara for the first time this season as the flamboyant midfielder has received medical clearance to play, even if he is unlikely to feature tomorrow. That being said, while there are no injury concerns, Barcelona will have to make do without Tito Vilanova on the sidelines after his dismissal in last week’s win over Osasuna was upheld upon appeal.
Victor Valdés will start in goal looking for his first clean sheet of the season and indeed his first since April 10, when Barcelona thrashed Getafe by four goals. Could this "clean sheet drought" be the reason behind his erratic displays in goal, or is it the other way round? Is he just too error-prone to keep opposing teams out? Whatever the case, a clean sheet will always boost a keeper’s confidence, especially when it comes against such difficult opposition.
That being said, the defense has as big a part as any to play in any clean sheet, and to put it simply, they need to improve. Dani Alves may return at right-back, but at this stage it seems more likely that Martin Montoya will receive the nod – and if his appearance on Wednesday is anything to go by, he is a more than capable replacement despite his inexperience at the highest level. At centre-back, I don’t think that Carles Puyol will be risked meaning that Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué will keep their place in spite of their errors. Alex Song, Sergio Busquets and Marc Bartra are all capable of challenging for a spot in the heart of defense, but tomorrow’s match appears far too important for risky experiments. Moving onto left-back, I fully expect Jordi Alba to start against his former club and Barcelona fans will be hoping that he can put in a similar performance to his home debut against Real Sociedad.
In midfield, there have been some rumours that Tito is contemplating whether or not to start Alex Song in place of Sergio Busquets, although it seems rather pointless to rest a player when they are about to leave on an international break for the best part of two weeks. Nevertheless, Song could debut and this may well be the perfect time for him to do so, especially with Valencia struggling for central midfield players. Xavi should start after sitting out the majority of the last league match while I have a feeling that Andrés Iniesta will find himself dropped to the bench in favour of Cesc Fàbregas. As much as I would like to see Thiago feature, I have my doubts as to whether he will even make the bench.
Moving onto the attack, Lionel Messi will start, hopefully in a more advanced role instead of the slightly withdrawn role he has played in each of the last few matches. While he has still found time to score plenty of goals, he could do even better if he was further up the pitch. After all, the rationale behind his switch to the false #9 role from the wing was that he performs better when he is closer to goal, so it seems silly to force him to drop deeper, especially when Barca have such a talented and creative midfield. Not only that, but Messi is yet to register a single assist in his four appearances this season. If this new position isn’t improving either major statistic, then what use is it serving?
Pedro must start on the right-flank after his excellent start to the season, so the only question is who completes the attack? Does Tito trust Alexis Sanchez to find form again? Or can he trust David Villa to perform on his first league start since 2011? Cristian Tello does have an outside chance at a start, but Alexis and Villa are the two main contenders, and I hope we see El Guaje strutting his stuff from the kick-off.
New coach Mauricio Pellegrino lamented his side’s loss of concentration as Valencia let a two goal lead slip to draw with Deportivo at the Mestalla. Picking up a point at the Bernabeu was a nice surprise, but it was imperative that they then went onto secure all three points in their opening home fixture. Two points from two fixtures isn’t the worst start and it does in fact eclipse Real Madrid’s point total, but a loss tomorrow would make it two points from a possible nine, which is a bad start if you are looking to challenge for a UEFA Champions League spot.
Anyway, moving onto the team news, Ricardo Costa’s red card leaves Valencia a little short at the back as Adil Rami and Victor Ruiz are the only two senior centre-backs remaining in the squad, and Gago’s possible injury leaves them with only one natural holding midfield player – David Albeda. Tino Costa has been part of the double-pivot midfield with Gago, but isn’t really a defensive player by nature, and they are likely to suffer as a result. Jonas has started the season well and will start just behind Roberto Soldado who got two goals in last week’s 3-3 draw, while there may be a first start for Aly Cissokho at left-back, unless Pellegrino opts for Jeremy Mathieu who has that annoying tendency to only play well against Barcelona.
FC Barcelona 5-1 Valencia CF – 19th February 2012 – La Liga
Barcelona romped to victory at the Camp Nou, despite falling behind to Pablo Piatti’s ninth minute goal, as four goals from Lionel Messi and one in injury-time from Xavi secured all three points in an emphatic win.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Song, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Villa
Valencia (4-2-3-1): Diego Alves; Pereira, Rami, Ruiz, Cissokho; Gago, Costa; Feghouli, Jonas, Guardado; Soldado
It’s either going to be a close-fought contest, or Barcelona will coast to victory, and as it’s at the Camp Nou, I am going for the latter. Barcelona to win 4-1, with goals from Messi (2), Pedro and hopefully Villa, but more likely Xavi or Cesc.