FC Barcelona travel to Andalusia tomorrow where they take on Manuel Pellegrini’s Malaga at La Rosaleda. The Blaugrana currently sit eleven points clear at the top of La Liga and should they avoid defeat, Barcelona will set a new record for points attained in the first half of a La Liga season. However, they will face a tough test in the form of a Malaga side who have recovered from the sale of star-player Santi Cazorla to remain in contention for UEFA Champions League qualification. Thanks to contributions from veteran strikers Roque Santa Cruz and Javier Saviola, Malaga started Jornada 19 in fourth place and have conceded just 13 goals thus far this season. Can La Liga’s best defense stifle the league’s most potent offense, or will Lionel Messi be able to guide Barcelona to yet another victory?
Do you want the good news, or the bad news? Well, starting with the good news, Tito Vilanova has returned from New York and is expected to lead the team tomorrow after missing Thursday’s 5-0 win over Cordoba, while Adriano has received medical clearance to play for the first time since scoring against Atletico Madrid. However, his return has been overshadowed by the news that David Villa is set to miss tomorrow’s trip with a hamstring injury. El Guaje was in inspired form on Thursday, scoring twice against Cordoba, but was forced off late on with that muscle injury. Whether Villa will recover in time for the midweek Copa del Rey quarter-final first leg – also against Malaga – is unknown at the time of publish.
In the past few days, rumours have emerged linking Victor Valdés with a move away from the Camp Nou – reports in Spain claim that the Catalan keeper will not be extending his current deal, which expires in 2014. Regardless of those reports, Valdés will start in goal tomorrow, and is likely to be high on confidence after last week’s clean sheet against Espanyol.
Ahead of Valdés, I fully expect Tito to name an unchanged back-line despite Adriano’s recovery. Gerard Piqué is improving by the week, while Carles Puyol continues to excel despite concerns over his fitness. Dani Alves looks to be hitting form once again, and Jordi Alba is Jordi Alba; I firmly believe there is no better in his position. At a push, Javier Mascherano might replace Carles Puyol at centre-half, but it’s a strong defense and without a stand-out scorer in their squad, Malaga may well struggle to find a way through to Valdés.
Sergio Busquets will start at pivote, looking to dominate the midfield as he did one week ago against Espanyol. The solitary assist – although spectacular – doesn’t really tell the whole story of his 90 minutes; while he did get forward and aid the attack it was the effort he put in defensively that made the difference. With four tackles and five interceptions, Busquets made sure that the ball barely passed the half-way line and in doing so, he ensured that there was no let up for the Espanyol defense.
Xavi and Cesc Fàbregas are favourites to start in the remaining two midfield roles and with a combined ten goals and thirteen assists in the opening eighteen matches of the season, Xavregas (is that the nickname we decided upon?) have established themselves as the best midfield pairing, not only at the club, but in La Liga and beyond. Sure, Andrés Iniesta forms a good partnership with Xavi, but if we can keep Iniesta in the team and play Xavregas, it’s almost a no-brainer. However, both Cesc and Xavi face competition from Thiago, who was quite simply superb against Cordoba on Thursday night.
Then, moving onto the attack, I expect Tito to keep the same triumvirate that dismantled Espanyol at the Camp Nou. Andrés Iniesta is doing a fantastic job on the left, and Pedro just might be turning the corner; everything seems to be falling into place. Lionel Messi will complete the attack; with Alexis Sánchez ready to make an impact off the bench should Pedro falter.
Malaga head into the match without right-back Jesus Gamez, who misses out through suspension and Julio Baptista continues to miss out through injury. However, Malaga were handed a boost this week as Diego Buonanotte returned to training following a foot injury sustained in Malaga’s midweek win over Eibar. Buonanotte was once labelled as the "new Messi" which obviously turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration, but make no mistake – he’s a good little player. Standing just five foot, three inches tall, Buonanotte is a tricky midfielder who can make the difference in a tight match, although he isn’t expected to start tomorrow. Instead, Barcelona will have to contend with Isco, who has been quite simply magnificent since Santi’s departure and we might even see a start for a former Barca star, Javier Saviola.
FC Barcelona 4-1 Malaga CF – 2 May 2012 – La Liga
Barcelona coasted to comfortable win over UEFA Champions League chasers Malaga, thanks to a hat-trick from none other than Lionel Messi. Carles Puyol had given the Blaugrana an early lead, before Salomon Rondon’s 27th minute goal tied the teams at 1-1. Two penalties – one in each half – and a chip moved Messi onto 68 goals for the season – a new European record – not to mention secured the three points.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
Malaga (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Sánchez, Demichelis, Weligton, Monreal; Camacho, Portillo; Joaquin, Isco, Eliseu; Santa Cruz
On paper, this is a tough game for the Blaugrana. Malaga have only lost twice at home, and as mentioned above, have the best defense in La Liga. However, Barcelona are looking for their tenth consecutive away victory in La Liga action, and I think they will be too strong for Pellegrini’s side. I’m going for a 3-1 Barca win.