With a guaranteed place in the knockout stages of the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League, FC Barcelona travel to Holland tomorrow to take on AFC Ajax in a match that could see the Blaugrana secure top spot in Group H. Depending on the result at the Amsterdam Arena, Ajax may also secure their place in the UEFA Europa League, so despite the media narrative, this is not a "meaningless" fixture.
Of course, while that may be the case, there is no need for Gerardo Martino to be reckless. With progress assured, this represents an excellent opportunity to assess some of the fringe players and if the situation allows, some of the brightest talents from the B team as well.
In total, Martino has named four players from Eusebio's B team: Sergi Gomez, Patric, Adama Traore and Jean-Marie Dongou. Will they get a few minutes of UEFA Champions League experience this early into their careers, or will Martino stick with the status quo for what could and should be a tough away fixture?
Brazilian full-back Adriano Correia has been ruled out of tomorrow's match after picking up a knock in the weekend's comfortable win over Granada, although Xavi returns to Martino's 19 man squad having sat out Saturday's match. In-form Chilean Alexis Sanchez however has not made the relatively short trip north, but fear not Culés -- Neymar retains his place in the squad.
Jose Manuel Pinto will start in goal hoping for a second successive clean sheet as he settles in for an extended stint inbetween the posts with Victor Valdes ruled out for the remainder of the calendar year. Ever a capable deputy, Pinto remains an excellent goalkeeper -- and unless he expressed a desire to either leave or retire, I would certainly keep him around as back-up next season, regardless of who takes the number one jersey.
In defense, Barcelona look a little short of options at full-back -- but thankfully both Martin Montoya and Patric are capable of starting on either flank. My money is on Patric to start on the left, with Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol ready to slot into the centre of defense. Sergi Gomez did receive a call-up, but I doubt he will be fortunate enough to start -- and Gomez even faces competition from Gerard Piqué and Marc Bartra to make the bench.
In midfield, Alex Song will start at pivote, with Sergi Roberto likely to make a rare start ahead of him in a slightly more advanced role. The young Catalan replaced Thiago Alcantara in Barcelona's squad this season and has found first team opportunities equally difficult to come by. Roberto will almost certainly be joined in midfield by Xavi, although Martino does have both Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas available if necessary.
Moving onto the attack, my instinct tells me that Neymar will start at false nine, with Pedro occupying one of the two wide positions. However, the only winger in the squad who could take the other position is Adama; will Martino hand the inexperienced wide-man a start in only his second senior appearance? Another alternative is to shift Neymar back to the left, allowing Cesc Fabregas to start in the hole -- or perhaps allowing Jean-Marie Dongou to lead the line after an impressive pre-season? Either way, I'm excited to see some of the young folk in action, albeit slightly disappointed that injury has robbed Alex Grimaldo the chance to demonstrate his immense potential.
Frank de Boer faces something of a crisis in attack with usual first choices Siem de Jong, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Bojan Krkic all absent through injury, but the former Barça defender remains optimistic about his team's chances, rather hopefully claiming that he wants his side to "dominate" the visitors. In a sense, it's perfectly realistic for de Boer to aim high -- this will not be a full strength Barcelona visiting the Amsterdam Arena and he's right, Ajax are in much better form now than when the two teams met earlier in the group stage.
But then we come back to the injuries; in the absence of de Jong and Sigthorsson, Ajax have a choice to make -- do they start Danny Hoesen (four goals in all competitions) or Davy Klassen (two goals in all competitions) in attack? Or do they move Lasse Schone further forward and lose the extra dimension he brings their midfield? It's a tough choice and one that will hardly encourage the Ajax faithful.
FC Barcelona 4-0 AFC Ajax -- 18th September 2013 -- UEFA Champions League
A hat-trick from Lionel Messi sent Barcelona on their way in this comfortable home win, with Gerard Piqué helping himself to a rare goal in the second half to emphasis the home side's superiority.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Montoya, Puyol, Mascherano, Patric; Song, Xavi, Roberto; Pedro, Dongou, Neymar
Ajax (4-2-3-1): Cillessen; van Rhijn, Moisander, Denswil, Blind; Poulsen, Serero; Andersen, Schone, Fischer; Hoesen
Barcelona will not be at full strength and could struggle if Ajax get off to a good start, but I envisage that Barça will still have too much quality for their hosts. I'm going for a 3-1 Blaugrana win.