FC Barcelona play host to Spartak Moscow tomorrow as they look to get their 2012-13 UEFA Champions League campaign underway with a win. The Russians were drawn into Group G from the Third Pot, so in theory they are the third best team in the group, but given that Benfica have sold a number of key players, Unai Emery will be confident of his team’s chances of progression. No-one expects Spartak to take anything from tomorrow’s match, but it’s vital that Barcelona do not under-estimate the challenge ahead of them.
On the other hand, the Blaugrana have every reason to be confident. With four wins from four, they are in fine domestic form, and aside from a blip against Real Madrid, they are 100% under Tito Vilanova. They have won each of the last two European Cup finals contested at Wembley and being drawn with Benfica is something of a good omen. Forget about all the statistics hinting that this will finally be the year Real Madrid claim La Decima, the last time Barcelona faced Benfica was in the 2005/06 quarter-finals – needless to say, the Catalans went on to lift the trophy in Paris. That’s not all – when was the last time Barcelona and Benfica were drawn into the same group I hear you ask? Well, as it happens, it was 1991/92 and Barcelona went on to lift the European Cup for the first time – at Wembley no less. But enough of the past, what should we expect from tomorrow’s match?
Aside from the injury suffered by Carles Puyol during the weekend’s win over Getafe, Tito Vilanova has no new injury problems to contend with, and bearing in mind that his side were utterly brilliant, the chances are that we will see few changes to the starting XI. It’s merely a question of who is restored to the starting line-up after sitting out the majority of Saturday’s win and who’s unfortunate enough to find themselves demoted to the bench.
Victor Valdés will have no concerns around his place – he is the number one after all. There was a stage in pre-season and around the Supercopa where a minority were advocating for Jose Manuel Pinto to start ahead of the Spanish international, but that time has well and truly passed. Valdés isn’t necessarily back to his best, but he is conceding less goals, making less mistakes and looking more confident between the sticks. Given the pace of the Spartak attack and Unai Emery’s tendency to play on the counter, Valdés will have to be focused tomorrow evening; ready to rush off his line to clear any danger if required.
That might not be the case if the defense plays as well as we know they can, but I’m still not fully convinced by the backline. Gerard Piqué is steadily improving; while Adriano and Martin Montoya have proved themselves capable of challenging for a first-team spot, but I think Javier Mascherano has been a little slow off the mark. Maybe it’s the hectic schedule catching up with him, or he’s a little rusty after spending the majority of his time playing in midfield for his country, but I feel as though he is a little slower than last season – both literally and mentally. Give it a couple more games and I’m sure he will be fine, but it’s a minor concern for tomorrow’s game what with Puyol injured and all.
Anyway, at right-back, I expect Dani Alves to start after sitting out Saturday’s win over Getafe, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Martin Montoya "stole" his place given the performance he put in at the weekend. Whether that means Alves could be pushed further forward remains to be seen, but I certainly wouldn’t discount it yet. At centre-back, Tito has little room for manoeuvre now that Carles Puyol is injured. Eric Abidal is still sidelined, so Vilanova has to pick two from Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Marc Bartra and Andreu Fontas. Being totally honest, Fontas has around a 10% chance of featuring, even with the injuries, and I would rate Bartra’s chances a little higher, maybe around 25%. However, this is still a UEFA Champions League match and therefore Piqué and Mascherano are the favourites to start, with Alex Song the only other feasible option. At left-back, Jordi Alba is still out with the flu, meaning that Adriano will start for the third match in succession.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets is the favourite to start at pivote, but Alex Song is an option, especially given Spartak’s athletic attack. Certainly, the Cameroonian’s inclusion would give the likes of Emmanuel Emenike and Ari something to think about, but Busquets is the better option with regards to possession and without possession, Spartak will not score. Whatever decision Tito makes, it’s safe to say we will all be 100% behind it.
Moving forward, Xavi should start in midfield, but Vilanova has a tough decision to make. Does he stick with Thiago, or move Cesc Fàbregas back into midfield? Could Xavi make way to the bench? It’s a selection problem for Tito to contend with, but it’s a good problem to have. Personally, I would go for Thiago and Xavi again, but it’s hard to leave out Cesc after his two assists helped secure Saturday’s win.
In attack, Lionel Messi will start, probably with Pedro in support, leaving one space, possibly for David Villa to make his first competitive start of 2012. Villa was the winner of yesterday’s daily poll, but we could equally see Cristian Tello, Gerard Deulofeu or perhaps someone else altogether in that left-wing berth. Maybe Pedro will move out to the left to accommodate Alves? Or Tito could shake things up dramatically and move Leo out to the right, with Pedro on the left to allow Cesc to keep his place in the team. So long as Messi is in the team in some fashion, Barca fans will be confident of securing all three points.
While it’s true that Barcelona cannot underestimate their opponents, it’s worth pointing out that Spartak struggle away from home. Last season, they only won six matches away from home and so far this season they have shown no improvement. A 5-0 loss to Zenit is perhaps the standout result, but even this past weekend, Kuban Krasnodar held Spartak to a draw – and they sold their best player in the summer to Anzhi. It’s a massive concern for Unai Emery, especially when you consider Barcelona’s home form.
The Krasno-Belye do have a strong side though. Andriy Dikan is a solid keeper; Juan Insaurralde is a good defender, (although he is only in the team because of Nicolas Pareja’s injury) and he is joined in the centre of defense by Marek Suchy. The Czech was named "Revelation of the Year" in the Czech Republic back in 2006 and of all the winners of that particular award, Suchy has arguably had the most successful career. The Kombarov twins, Kirill and Dmitri usually occupy the full-back slots in a system similar to the one Emery used at Valencia (i.e. overlapping full-backs on either side, with emphasis on the left-flank and Dmitri). Evegeni Makeev is another option for the Russians, very much capable of playing full-back in Emery’s system. Makeev started in the derby against Lokomotiv at the start of the month with Kirill Kombarov further ahead on the right-flank, but was demoted back down to the bench for the weekend’s match.
Romulo has virtually been an ever-present since joining up with the team following the summer’s Olympic Games, but he hasn’t really had a consistent partner in the double-pivot of Emery’s 4-2-3-1. Demy de Zeeuw has played in the most matches, but Kim Kallstrom featured at the weekend and Rafael Carioca has also featured prominently. I think De Zeeuw will get the nod for his experience, but any of the above could start; it is difficult to second-guess someone known as the "Tinkerman".
Aiden McGeady is a sure-fire starter on one of the wings, although he has switched between the right and left fairly often this season. Wherever he plays, his dribbling will be a cause for concern for the Barca defense. Therefore, I expect him to start on the left in an attempt to overload Alves, one of Emery’s usual tactics in matches against the Blaugrana. That would allow Kirill Kombarov to start on the right-wing with Makeev at right-back in a situation similar to the Alba-Mathieu partnership Emery used extensively against Barcelona. On the other hand, McGeady could start on the right with former Everton star Diniyar Bilyaletdinov on the left.
Then we get to the attack, and Emmanuel Emenike should start as the CF, with one player behind him – given Welliton’s injury, Ari is the most likely option. Emenike was Spartak’s top scorer last season, mixing athleticism with explosive finishing, but he can be a fairly patchy performer. On his day, he is unplayable – very Didier Drogba-like for want of a better comparison – but other matches he can be fairly anonymous. Knowing that Barcelona typically struggle against forwards with Emenike’s attributes, I pray it’s the latter tomorrow, but even then, Ari could make the difference. He too can rely on power to trouble the Barca defense, but adds a little creativity to the attack with three assists in seven league appearances so far this season.
Spartak Moscow: WWLDLD
FC Barcelona 5-1 Spartak Moscow – 16th March 1994 – UEFA Champions League
Valery Karpin (who is currently "Executive Director" at the club) opened the scoring with three minutes gone before Barcelona hit back as goals from Hristo Stoickhov, Guillermo Amor, Ronald Koeman (2) and a Romario penalty secured the three points.
FC Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Busquets, Fàbregas, Xavi; Pedro, Villa, Messi
Spartak Moscow (4-2-3-1): Dikan; Makeev, Insaurralde, Suchy, D. Kombarov; Romulo, De Zeeuw; K. Kombarov, Ari, McGeady; Emenike
Spartak are terrible on their travels. Barcelona are in exceptional form. Either we see a shock, or Barca run away with it. I suspect the latter is a lot more likely – 4-1 Barcelona for me.