FC Barcelona return to La Liga action tomorrow when they travel to Northwest Spain to face relegation-threatened Celta Vigo at Estadio Balaidos. The Blaugrana – who will be without head coach Tito Vilanova who has stayed in Barcelona at the recommendation of his doctors – will have one eye on Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain and are likely to field a weakened team as a result. However, with Lionel Messi looking to score in his nineteenth successive La Liga appearance and with Eric Abidal possibly poised to make his long-awaited return to football, Barça are still expected to escape Vigo with all three points. Can Jordi Roura lead Barcelona to victory once more, or will Abel Resino be able to mastermind Celta to a surprise win?
Barcelona were dealt a boost tonight as Tito Vilanova named Eric Abidal in the 19 man squad that travels to Vigo, although the Blaugrana will be without a whole host of key names. Not only does Carles Puyol miss out after knee surgery, but Jordi Alba, Xavi Hernández and Pedro Rodriguez are all sidelined with muscle complaints of one sort or another. The quartet are also doubtful to feature on Tuesday night at the Parc des Princes; at least Victor Valdés won’t be suspended for the match against PSG. Oh, and the supremely talented Gerard Deulofeu could be in line to make his first-ever start for the senior team.
Victor Valdés serves the third match of his four game suspension tomorrow, meaning that Jose Manuel Pinto will start in goal against his former club looking for his sixth clean sheet of the season. The veteran Spaniard will go down as one of Celta Vigo’s greatest-ever goalkeepers and Pinto even won the Zamora trophy back in 2006 for his heroics between the sticks against the rest of La Liga. Will he be able to revisit his glory days with another superlative display at Balaidos?
With three defenders missing out through injury, there is a distinct possibility that we will see Marc Bartra finally start his first match in La Liga. Bartra has played just 45 minutes of football for the Blaugrana since his last La Liga appearance in November 2012, but with Puyol sidelined and PSG on the horizon, Bartra should get his opportunity tomorrow. I would prefer to see Javier Mascherano start alongside Bartra, although we could equally see Gerard Piqué – perhaps Roura/Tito would rather leave Mascherano out after a gruelling midweek match against Bolivia in high altitude? Martin Montoya will start with both Alba and Adriano missing through injury, meaning that Dani Alves is likely to complete the defense – unless of course Eric Abidal is a surprise inclusion in the starting XI.
Sergio Busquets may start at pivote, which would allow Alex Song to operate in a slightly more advanced role in midfield. Not only would that allow the Cameroonian midfielder to showcase his creative skills (Song somehow registered 14 assists in all competitions last season), but it would allow Thiago to really focus on the offensive side of his game rather than fret about his defensive responsibilities. Of course, Cesc Fàbregas could start in Busquets’ place, pushing Song back to his usual defensive midfield role – and that’s without considering Andrés Iniesta, even if I would like to see Iniesta rested ahead of Tuesday’s pivotal clash.
Moving onto the attack, will Lionel Messi start? The Argentine has scored in his last eighteen La Liga appearances – for a little context, Osasuna have scored in just sixteen of their 28 matches this season – but he started both of Argentina’s World Cup qualifiers, including last Tuesday’s match with Bolivia. Messi deserves a break – it’s not like we need him to defeat Celta Vigo (or do we?) – and we have plenty of capable replacements. Alexis Sánchez can start on the right-hand side of attack; Cesc Fàbregas is arguably our best alternative as a "false nine" and Cristian Tello has the potential to worry any defense from his usual position on the left-wing. Both Messi and David Villa would be available to feature as substitutes if absolutely necessary – and while I rate Deulofeu very highly, this arguably isn’t the best time for the starlet to make his debut, at least, as a starter anyway. At present, Deulofeu’s buy-out clause remains at an incredibly affordable €10 million; sure, a start could serve as a sweetener, prompting Gerard to sign a new deal, but it could also ramp up the interest in his services. We rushed Bojan into the spotlight, and that didn’t turn out very well – after all, there’s no rush. A cameo performance in a comfortable win wouldn’t go amiss however...
Central midfielder Álex López, Danish winger Krohn-Dehli, back-up keeper Sergio, centre-half Samuel and former Spain Under-21 full-back Hugo Mallo all miss out through injury while top-scorer Iago Aspas (who was sent-off for what was probably the stupidest head-butt since Zidane’s meltdown in the World Cup Final) and Venezuelan centre-half Andrés Túñez are suspended. Therefore, Resino has been forced to call-up two youth players: Spanish goalkeeper Ruben Blanco and Gabonese holding midfielder Levy Madinda.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Celta Vigo – 3rd November 2012 – La Liga
Adriano got the ball rolling with a 21st minute strike, which was quickly cancelled out by Mario Bermejo’s goal in the 24th minute. However, Celta were not level for long – Villa restored Barça’s advantage after 26 minutes of play before Jordi Alba secured the three points around the hour mark.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Montoya; Busquets, Song, Thiago; Alexis, Fàbregas, Tello
Celta Vigo (4-2-3-1): Varas; Jonny, Cabral, Demidov, Lago; Pranjic, Oubiña; Fernandez, Bermejo, de Lucas; Park
Barcelona may have an important UEFA Champions League match to think about, but they should still have more than enough to condemn Celta to their 18th defeat of the season. I’m going for a 3-0 Barcelona win.