FC Barcelona entertain relegation-threatened rivals Espanyol tomorrow in their first competitive match of 2013. The Blaugrana finished 2012 on a high and, fresh off the back of ten successive wins in La Liga action, they will be looking for another victory against an Espanyol side that has won just once in their last eight matches. Given that the hosts will be buoyed by the return of Tito Vilanova who is set to reclaim his place on the bench just weeks after surgery, it’s hard to envisage anything but a Barca win.
Despite missing Catalunya’s friendly with Nigeria in midweek, Victor Valdés is expected to recover from a foot injury to start between the sticks tomorrow. It will be his 18th appearance against Espanyol and a win tomorrow would give Valdés his tenth Derbi victory. Granted, the Catalan has struggled for form this season, and he has always had his critics, but has there ever been a more successful goalkeeper than Victor Valdés? I think we can afford to cut him a little slack anyway.
In defense, I expect Dani Alves and Jordi Alba to start at right-back and left-back respectively while I think we might see Gerard Piqué partnered with Javier Mascherano at centre-half. Carles Puyol could start ahead of Mascherano, but our captain sustained a nasty cut in Wednesday’s match against Nigeria and personally, I would rather Tito let him sit this one out and gave Mascherano a chance to impress.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets will start at pivote and is certain to have Xavi Hernández in support. However, who will complete the midfield? Will we see Ballon d’Or candidate Andrés Iniesta in his usual role, or will Cesc Fàbregas be restored to the starting XI? Fàbregas has been out for roughly a month with a muscle injury, but this week he received the green light to return to action. Given that Pedro and Alexis Sánchez are far from the peak of their powers, I wouldn’t hesitate to restore Iniesta to the left-hand side of attack, allowing Cesc to take his place in midfield.
Speaking of the attack, it goes without saying that Lionel Messi will start as the false nine. Surprisingly though, his record against Espanyol has been mediocre at best. With just seven goals in sixteen appearances against Los Periquitos, it appears as though Espanyol have been something of a bogey team for Leo – but with last season’s four-goal haul fresh in our memories, it would be naive to doubt Messi’s credentials. Alongside Messi, I expect to see Andrés Iniesta, with the final place likely to go to either Pedro or Alexis Sánchez. The Chilean deserves an extended run in the team, but Barca are undefeated in six matches against Espanyol with Pedro in the team and I suspect that we will see him start again tomorrow.
Espanyol head into the match looking to play off their underdog tag and pull off an upset against one of the nation’s best teams – just like they did against Real Madrid a few short weeks ago. Javier Aguirre believes that his team can shock the world, and Catalan midfielder Joan Verdu backed up his claims in a pre-match press conference. Verdu acknowledged that Espanyol will have to improve if they are to take points from the Blaugrana, but with their performance against Los Blancos as a reference, Espanyol will be full of confidence.
Aguirre’s side were at their combative best that night, but if they allow Barcelona as much possession as they gave Real Madrid, they will likely face severe consequences. Mexican centre-half Hector Moreno was exceptional against Cristiano Ronaldo et al, and has even been linked with a move to the Camp Nou in the past, while no-one can doubt the quality of ex-Barca players like Sergio Garcia and Simao. Who knows, maybe Espanyol can shock the world?
FC Barcelona 4-0 RCD Espanyol – 5th May 2012 – La Liga
A sensational four-goal performance from Lionel Messi inspired the Blaugrana to victory at the Camp Nou, as Messi added to his first-half goal with a second-half hat-trick that included two well-taken penalties.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
Espanyol (4-2-3-1): Casilla; Lopez, Moreno, Colotto, Alvarez; Victor Sánchez, Forlin; Sergio Garcia, Verdu, Simao; Stuani
Espanyol won just once on their travels in the whole of 2012; and based on that, I sincerely doubt that they will be able to emerge with a victory at the Camp Nou. I expect Barca will win, and do so fairly easily. I’m going for a 3-1 win.