Although Tito Vilanova is still in New York receiving treatment for cancer, he will no doubt decide which eleven Blaugrana take the field Wednesday against AC Milan, with assistant manager Jordi Roura holding the reins come game-time. With a heavy match schedule ahead—including the decisive Copa Clásico against Real Madrid next Wednesday—Tito may be tempted to hold back key players. This is the Champions Leauge, however, and AC Milan is no pushover. A misstep in the San Siro could spell disaster for Barcelona.
Xavi is ready to return to action, but Wednesday would be his first appearance since injuring his hamstring against Valencia two weeks ago. 90 minutes is allot to ask from the 33-year-old, especially considering this is only the first leg. The question is, does Tito start him in the hopes of securing a lead, then pull him off? Or does he sit Xavi, holding him in reserve for the second half?
Xavi's absence would make room for two midfielders beside Sergio Busquets—Cesc Fabregas, and either Andrés Iniesta or Thiago. Iniesta in midfield makes many a culé very happy, and opens the door for both Alexis and Tello up top, but Thiago is in good form, and is being groomed as Xavi's replacement. This would be a huge opportunity for him to step in to Xavi's distribution role, allowing Cesc or Iniesta to drift forward in attack.
Tito's decision here is no doubt the most challenging—how to arrange the midfield. Xavi or no Xavi, Iniesta will probably start, the only question is where. While Andrés is a natural midfielder, he seems to be getting more comfortable out on the left wing, and I can't recall the last time he was asked to play "Xavi" deep in midfield. Cesc, too seems to be acclimating to a more offensive role, often leading the attack up the middle. Does this mean Thiago gets the call?
If Mr. Alcantara does start for Xavi, Iniesta would move to the left wing, joining Messi and the increasingly reliable Pedro up top. That leaves Alexis and Tello on the bench hoping for late opportunities, of which the latter seems most deserving. Tello had an immediate and positive effect on the match against Granada when he subbed on for Alexis. Nevermind Alexis' difficulty finishing, Tello moves much better with the Barcelona attack, passing sooner and stretching the pitch further.
Adriano, our dear man of glass, is injured yet again—this time with a hamstring—meaning Jordi Alba will start. Thanks to his chemistry with Iniesta, this makes Andrés in attack even more likely. Piqué and Puyol are both healthy, which is something we can hopefully keep saying for many weeks, and Dani Alves will be ready on the right.
Everybody in the Barcelona camp will say their only concern is this match against Milan, and that the Rossoneri are a great club with lots of history and are not to be taken lightly. This sort of thinking means Iniesta and Puyol definitely start, and Xavi features prominently—either in the first or second half. But everybody knows that AC Milan isn't quite the club they used to be, and Adriano's hamstring is a reminder of just how tenuous squad fitness really is. With another match at the Nou Camp in two weeks, can't Barcelona afford to play conservatively, leaving some elder statesmen on the bench and trusting a few last-minute subs and Leo Messi will ensure at least a draw?
For Tito, there's really only one option: win the match. A slightly inexperienced lineup and an early goal in a hostile environment could be ugly. In many ways, the conservative approach is to go all-out and try to put the elimination to bed. Xavi in the starting XI may be the best option. "El Motorcito" is not the type to turn the game around as a 70th minute substitute—he's the man who sets the tone of the entire match from the start, and we've all seen how Barcelona's attack frays when Thiago comes on to take his place.
There's a rather grim scenario that could transpire with Xavi watching the kick-off from the bench: Thiago starts, Barcelona is out of synch, and Milan grabs an early goal or two. In a desperate attempt to get back in the match, Xavi is forced into action. San Siro is absolutely on fire, and Xavi plays the toughest football there is.
Of course, starting a 33-year-old player who has only just received clearance ahead of the most crucial stretch of the season could also be called foolish.
Whatever Tito decides, we should see Barcelona attacking from the get-go and gunning for some away goals. Most importantly, Barcleona must keep their foot on the gas. With any sort of a lead, second-half rotations will be tempting, but I hope we'll see the likes of Christian Tello entering the match, and not Alex Song.
A good result in this match makes everything easier, and takes Barcelona one step closer to another "triplete".