FC Barcelona travel to Andalusia tomorrow, as they look to either maintain or extend their lead at the top of La Liga depending on the result of Atletico Madrid’s early evening fixture with Villarreal CF. Diego Simeone’s side could take temporary control at the top with a win at El Madrigal, in which case this fixture would take on extra importance for the travelling Blaugrana, who traditionally struggle at the Estadio Benito Villamarin.
In fact, Tito Vilanova became the first Barcelona manager since Frank Rijkaard to escape the green-half of Seville with all three points last season; up until that visit, Barcelona were without a win in their past five visits to Real Betis. Will Gerardo Martino experience a similar "debut" to his predecessor, or will the Verdiblancos cause Barça to drop points for only the second time this season?
If the form guide is anything to go by, Barcelona should run away with a comfortable victory – Real Betis are languishing in 19th place having mustered just one win in their last five La Liga fixtures. While their UEFA Europa League form has been encouraging, Betis simply haven’t been able to replicate that form domestically – and may even finish the weekend in last place, depending on the result of Rayo Vallecano’s trip to Miroslav Djukic’s inconsistent Valencia.
Can Pepe Mel somehow lead his side to a surprise win, ending Gerardo Martino’s 18 game unbeaten streak, or will Barcelona retain control of La Liga with another victory?
Gerard Piqué has been ruled out of tomorrow’s match with a recurrence of his troublesome groin injury while one of Wednesday’s goalscorers, Sergio Busquets, has also been left out of the squad for technical reasons. With Oier Olazábal out of the first-team picture, and with Isaac Cuenca, Ibrahim Afellay, Jordi Alba and Jonathan dos Santos sidelined through injury, which leaves a squad of just 18 players to make the trip to Seville. Is that in itself a cause for concern?
In some respects, it may be; but it really depends on your personal viewpoint. My view is that it only becomes an issue when something else more major becomes an issue, like league standings, or player performance. In the absence of either concern, I’d say Barça’s squad is doing just fine, although from a tactical standpoint, they may have a few issues to address ahead of tomorrow’s game.
For instance, with both Sergio Busquets and Gerard Piqué missing, Barcelona’s line-up will lack height, virtually forcing Gerardo Martino to start Marc Bartra in the heart of defense. Based on recent performances, this is hardly a bad thing, but it may accentuate Barcelona’s set-piece problem, unless Martino makes further adjustments.
The introduction of Cesc Fàbregas back into the starting line-up for instance would add a little more presence, but if it comes at the expense of Xavi, then Barça may concede their usual midfield dominance, especially in the absence of Busquets. And typically, the more "open" a match it is, the more susceptible the Barcelona defense – Alex Song, Dani Alves and Carles Puyol in particular – are to being caught out.
This is where rotation becomes about more than just changing personnel; tactics and, yes, philosophies have to be adjusted too. Without the "spine" of their team in Piqué, Busquets and possibly Xavi, Barcelona’s philosophy becomes less possession-orientated and a little more direct. Is that necessarily a negative change? Of course not, but it remains a far less familiar option to our squad than the usual possession-based style and that could cause problems in a tight match.
On the other hand, Barcelona have the perfect strikeforce for this "direct" approach; as a triumvirate, Alexis Sánchez, Lionel Messi and Neymar are fast, technically-gifted and clinical. Their movement, both on and off the ball is exquisite and in recent weeks, it’s been pivotal in unlocking opposing defenses – like Espanyol’s for instance. Will the trio run riot again tomorrow? Will they even start together?
Pedro for instance hasn’t started the past two matches, and based on Martino’s usual rotation, is due a start tomorrow – likely at Alexis’ expense. But is the Spaniard the right choice in this "direct" line-up? I’ll let Martino be the judge...
Undoubtedly Real Betis’ current league standing is down to the absence of one man: Barcelona’s "bogeyman", Ruben Castro. The Spanish centre-forward has been sidelined with a back injury supposedly similar to the one suffered by Gareth Bale, and Pepe Mel will be hard-pressed to find another striker with such an impressive record against the Blaugrana. Salva Sevilla has been in good form when fit this season, but is also ruled out of tomorrow’s match – along with Paulao, Javi Chica, Lolo Reyes, Nosa Igiebor, Damien Perquis and Juanfran. With such a lengthy injury list, it’s difficult to see Betis grabbing anything from tomorrow’s clash.
Real Betis: LWLDLW
FC Barcelona 4-2 Real Betis – 5th May 2013 – La Liga
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Bartra, Puyol, Adriano, Song, Fàbregas, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Neymar
Real Betis (4-2-3-1): Andersen; Steinhofer, Amaya, Figueras, Nacho; Torres, Matilla; Vadillo, Verdu, Cedrick; Molina
My predictions have been awful this season to say the least, so let’s focus on the details – I don’t think Barcelona will boast their usual 70% possession, instead I think they’ll settle for around 55-60% and score a few extra goals in a 4-1 win.