FC Barcelona take a momentary break from defending their Copa del Rey title tomorrow as they return to the Camp Nou to take on Osasuna in La Liga action. The visitors climbed off the bottom of the table last weekend with a win over fellow strugglers Deportivo La Coruna, but they face an uphill battle against the runaway league leaders. Despite succumbing to their first defeat of the season against Real Sociedad last Saturday, the Blaugrana are heavy favourites for tomorrow’s encounter and aside from a 2-2 draw against Real Madrid in El Clasico, Barça boast a 100% record at the Camp Nou. Will they be able to claim their nineteenth victory of the season with a win tomorrow, or will Osasuna be able to pull off another shock result?
Barcelona remain without their coach Tito Vilanova who is currently in the US undergoing further treatment. However, with a 100% record under assistant manager Jordi Roura, some might argue that it doesn’t entirely matter. Lionel Messi may have been substituted against Malaga – but has recovered fully from the discomfort he felt in his leg, and could well start tomorrow. Aside from that, there is just one piece of injury news, and that surrounds back-up keeper Jose Manuel Pinto who missed today’s training through illness.
Therefore, Victor Valdés should reclaim his starting place in the Barcelona goal, and it will be his first match at the Camp Nou since announcing his intention to leave the club in 2014. Valdés has been a loyal servant to the club over the years, but it’s hard to gauge just how the crowd will react – and if there is an adverse reaction, whether that will affect Valdés’ confidence. Moving away from that topic, Valdés is sure to be relishing the chance to face Osasuna, who have the worst offensive record in the entire league and if there are any discontent fans in attendance, I’m sure Valdés could win them over with a rare clean sheet.
However, if Barcelona are to keep a clean sheet, they will have to do it without one of their star defenders, as Gerard Piqué misses out through suspension. However, Barça’s defense is unlikely to suffer a great deal, especially as Carles Puyol should step in as a "replacement". El Capitan was not at his best at the Anoeta, but his presence always lifts the team onto bigger and better things; although one could argue that the Blaugrana need to keep Puyol fresh for Wednesday’s Clasico. Starting alongside Puyi, we all expect to see Javier Mascherano, but wouldn’t it be nice to see a rare start for Marc Bartra? Don’t get me wrong, El Jefecito is a terrific player, but isn’t Bartra due a start?
After all, Mascherano is struggling for form and if Bartra isn’t good enough to start against the worst attack in La Liga, then where does that leave us in the long-run? Despite that, Mascherano is almost certain to start, and the best we can probably hope for is for Bartra to make the bench. At full-back, I would like to see Adriano and Martin Montoya start on the left and right respectively, but we could just as easily see Jordi Alba and Dani Alves start – especially as neither are showing even the slightest sign of fatigue.
Similarly, Sergio Busquets might be due a rest ahead of the midweek Clasico, but should start tomorrow at pivote. With Jonathan dos Santos left in the wilderness, Alex Song is the closest thing Busi has to competition, but the Cameroonian midfielder seems unlikely to start after being left in Malaga after Thursday’s game. Ahead of Busquets, I think that Roura will opt to start Thiago Alcântara, and I would even like to see Song given a chance to shine in a more advanced midfield role, but the odds of that happening seem slim to none even if it would allow Xavi, Cesc and Iniesta to rest ahead of the Clasico. Instead, we’re likely to see either Cesc Fàbregas or Xavi play an hour or so, with the other playing the remaining half-an-hour – assuming all goes to plan.
That leaves the attack, and Lionel Messi should start as the false nine, with Cristian Tello, Alexis Sánchez and David Villa fighting it out for the remaining two slots. El Guaje scored a brace in the corresponding fixture of last season (the glorious 8-0 win), although whether he is ready to start after his recent injury remains to be seen. Therefore, I’m going to hedge my bets and predict starts for Tello and Sánchez – who, with any luck, will remember to pack appropriate footwear.
Curiously enough, Osasuna actually boast a better defensive record than their hosts, which must be some sort of a record in itself. How on earth can one side lead the league, yet concede more goals than another team in the relegation zone? Of course, the difference between the two sides is the quality of each team’s frontline. While Barcelona have, well Lionel Messi, Osasuna have Kike Sola – no offense to Kike Sola or any of his fans if they are reading. With just sixteen La Liga goals to their name, Osasuna are in desperate need of a clinical striker – or else a season (or more) in the Segunda beckons. On the other hand, one can’t help but be impressed by their keeper, Andrés Fernandez, who is rumoured to be one of Barça’s potential targets. Fernandez has kept seven clean sheets thus far this season, including one shut-out against Real Madrid. Could he pull a "Javi Varas" and single-handedly save Osasuna from defeat?
CA Osasuna 1-2 FC Barcelona – 26th August 2012 – La Liga
Barcelona left it late, but eventually secured the three points against ten-man Osasuna, who lost out to a brace from Lionel Messi. Joseba Llorente had given the hosts the lead on 14 minutes, but Paxti Punal’s sending-off put them in a difficult position, and they eventually caved in under the heavy pressure.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Adriano, Puyol, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Thiago, Fàbregas; Sánchez, Messi, Tello
Osasuna (4-2-3-1): Fernandez; Bertran, Ruben, Arribas, Damia; Punal, Lolo; Cejudo, Armenteros, Nino; Sola
Barcelona have not been at their best in recent weeks, but should still have enough to dispatch Osasuna without too much trouble. I’m going for a 3-0 home win.