FC Barcelona will be looking to kick-start the second-half of their La Liga season with a win tomorrow as they travel to the Basque Country, where they will face ninth-placed Real Sociedad at the Estadio Anoeta. Philippe Montanier’s side have struggled for form recently, and have mustered just one win in their last five matches, although one could argue that this is the best possible time to host the Blaugrana. Fresh off a surprising Copa del Rey draw with Malaga, Barca are sure to have one eye on Thursday’s return leg at La Rosaleda. Could Sociedad take advantage and become just the second team to take points from Tito Vilanova’s side – just as they did in last season’s corresponding fixture?
David Villa continues to miss out through injury, but the biggest squad-related news of the week broke yesterday – and it involved Victor Valdés. In case you missed it, Valdés revealed (via his agent) that he is going to leave the Camp Nou at the end of his contract after more than a decade of service. Naturally, the news has been met with a mixed reaction. While we are all grateful to Valdés for the commitment he has shown the club in the past, couldn’t the public announcement have waited until the summer?
Regardless of his decision, Valdés should start in goal tomorrow. Jose Manuel Pinto is a fine back-up goalkeeper, but that’s all he is – and we saw that on Wednesday. It was his pass that allowed Manuel Iturra to tackle Thiago, and we simply cannot risk Pinto making another mistake of that magnitude – even with such a healthy lead at the top of La Liga. Therefore, Valdés will remain as the number one – at least until a replacement is identified and signed.
The question is will his decision affect the rest of the team? In theory, it shouldn’t make a difference, but at this point in time, it’s hard to tell. Will his teammates continue to trust him, knowing that he isn’t entirely committed to the club? It’s highly unlikely – most of his colleagues are also his friends and they are also professionals above all else – but again, it’s impossible to know for sure.
In defense tomorrow, Dani Alves should return at right-back after missing Wednesday’s draw with Malaga, and he’s likely to be joined in defense by Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol. Piqué also sat out the Malaga match, but Geri has started in each of Barcelona’s last nine league games. Back to his best – and still improving – Piqué’s resurgence has inspired the Blaugrana to the best start in La Liga history. In fact, with Piqué in the team, Barcelona look virtually unbeatable. Similarly, with Jordi Alba starting at left-back, Barcelona become a much more potent attacking force – it might not appear to be the case from the stats, but it’s Barca’s defense which has made the difference in the first half of the season.
That’s especially true if you regard Sergio Busquets to be part of that Blaugrana defense. Already the best in his position, Busi has continued to improve over the past six months and in doing so, he has established himself as one of the greatest holding midfielders of all-time. Busquets is set to start his eighteenth La Liga match of the season tomorrow, and he is likely to be accompanied in midfield by Xavi Hernández and Cesc Fàbregas. Thiago has been pushing for a place in the starting XI with his performances in recent weeks, but he disappointed many with his decision-making in Wednesday’s draw and therefore is unlikely to start tomorrow.
Lionel Messi should start in attack, and he’s likely to face one of his toughest tests of the season so far against a Sociedad defense that have conceded just six goals at home. That’s the joint-lowest figure in La Liga, although will that be enough to stop Messi? The Argentine is on course to smash his own record for goals scored in a La Liga season, and he has contributed either a goal or an assist in eighteen of his nineteen appearances – with the only exception being the 3-1 win against Celta Vigo. Logic suggests that he will strike again tomorrow, but stranger things have happened. After yet another goalless performance, Alexis Sánchez is unlikely to start, which means that Tito Vilanova is likely to start Andrés Iniesta on the left, with Pedro on the right. Given Alexis’ continued struggles in-front of goal, Cristian Tello had a good opportunity to stake his claim for a starting berth with his start on Wednesday. However, Tello appeared hesitant to go for goal, instead favouring a more creative role on the left-hand side of attack – which ultimately isn’t going to win him a place over Andrés Iniesta.
There’s mixed news on the selection front for Philippe Montanier as his side get ready to host the league leaders. While Dani Estrada, Mikel Gonzalez and Inigo Martinez return following their suspensions, Sociedad will be without a whole host of first-team players. Liassine Cadamuro is away on international duty (although he has barely featured this season); Jon Ansotegi misses out through injury while midfielder David Zurutuza is anaemic and therefore will not play a part in tomorrow’s match.
Real Sociedad: WDDWLD
FC Barcelona 5-1 Real Sociedad – 19 August 2012 – La Liga
Barcelona kicked off the Tito Vilanova era with a bang by comfortably defeating Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou. Carles Puyol handed Barca an early lead, but Chori Castro's equalised almost instantaneously. However, the two sides didn't stay level for long as a brace from Lionel Messi, not to mention goals from Pedro and David Villa handed the Blaugrana the three points.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Puyol, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
Real Sociedad (4-2-3-1): Bravo; Martinez, Inigo, Mikel, De La Bella; Pardo, Illarramendi; Prieto, Castro, Griezmann; Vela
Barcelona will be anxious to return to winning ways tomorrow, but Sociedad are not going to make it easy. Either Barca surprise us with a landslide win, or this one is going down to the wire. I’m going for a hard-fought 2-1 Blaugrana win.