With Xavi recovering and a need to rest Andres Iniesta, Thiago will be a key player in this stretch. - David Ramos
FC Barcelona will endure one of the toughest stretches in recent memory starting February 16. Over a two week span, Barca will face Milan away in the Champions League and Real Madrid twice, as well as two La Liga games. Jordi Roura and Tito Vilanova will have to plan their squad rotation accordingly if the Blaugrana want to remain in all three competitions.
Barcelona will have to pass a rough two-week exam if the team really is ready to take three trophies home this season, which would be only the second time in history any Spanish team would do so.
Tito Vilanova and Jordi Roura will need to rotate the squad and make key strategic decisions if they hope to emulate Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, which climbed the mountaintop and secured the treble his first season in charge.
In just a two week span, starting this Saturday the 16th and going until March 2nd, the Blaugrana will play five critical games across all three competitions which will go a long way to deciding if the treble is attainable. Complicating matters is Xavi's injury, which he should be recovering from soon, and Vilanova's extended absence due to illness.
It starts with a trip to Granada in the league. The Andalusian team had been struggling near or in the relegation zone for much of the season but have climbed all the way to 14th after a string of good results.
Just four days later, Barca travel to Milan for the first leg of a Champions League round of 16 tie. AC Milan have been buoyed by the arrival of Mario Balotelli from Manchester City, but the headline-grabbing striker is cup-tied and thus unavailable for this match. Instead, the Rossoneri will rely on Stephan El Shaarawy, M'Baye Niang, Giampaolo Pazzini, or former Barca boy wonder Bojan Krkic to provide goals.
Milan began much of the season in the middle of the table but have moved up to fifth place. Though not considered a classic side by any measure, Milan have successfully moved away from their "golden oldies" and embraced young talent. El Shaarawy has been their dominant player, but he has suffered from a dip in goalscoring form in the past few weeks.
Still, the Rossoneri fans are not worried about "The Pharaoh", and they fancy their chances at least in the home leg. Bojan will be motivated to show his former team they were wrong to doubt him, and the Italian team will try their best to frustrate the Catalan side yet again.
Just three days after, Barcelona host Sevilla in the Camp Nou. Sevilla are a good team, but it's true that they are much more vulnerable away from the Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium. At their home fortress, Sevilla have won seven games and lost only three in La Liga; away from home they have won only once and lost seven.
Still, Sevilla have complicated big teams all season and will be motivated for a rematch after controversially losing a 2-0 lead against Barca the last time the two met.
Another three days, another match: this one a Clasico. Barca will stay at the Camp Nou, awaiting visiting Real Madrid to settle the Copa del Rey tie that began a few weeks back.
The first leg ended in a 1-1 draw, which led fans of both teams to wonder if either side had gained an advantage. A poll on this blog showed that most fans thought the draw gave neither team a leg up, though more fans thought it was a good result for Barca compared to those who thought it was a better result for Real.
Whatever the case, Barcelona can advance with a 0-0 draw, but that seems highly unlikely given their inability to keep clean sheets and Real's wealth of attacking talent. Instead, Los Cules will probably have to win the game, or else draw 1-1 and advance on penalties.
Four days later, a rematch will be served up with a league Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu. Real Madrid will still be chasing Barcelona and probably also Atletico Madrid in the table, so Barca can actually afford a draw or even a loss. However, the results in the two league games preceding this one may determine if Barca would risk rotating players or if Vilanova would want to give it his all to reaffirm the advantage.
Barca's impressive league form has given them a 12-point cushion over Atletico Madrid at the top of the table, which will come in handy with the congested fixture list in mind. The manager can continue to give starts to squad players such as Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Alex Song, Thiago Alcantara, and Cristian Tello in the league games to save the likes of Carles Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi for the elimination matches.
Winning in the cup is the most important challenge, as there will be no second chance. If the team does not perform, they are out. The Champions League match is the biggest game by the prestige of the competition, but in this case Barcelona can take a draw as a good, though not great, result.
But even if Barca pass all the hurdles, there are more to come. A week later, the Blaugrana host Deportivo in the league, three days later they face Milan for the return leg, and four days later they face off at home against the surprisingly strong Rayo Vallecano. And so, it will continue.
Still, this two-week period will probably be one of the season's defining stretches, and a good run could be the beginning of a re-write of the history books. A bad run and the season may descend into what could have been.