FC Barcelona take on Real Zaragoza at La Romareda tomorrow, knowing that a win would leave them needing just nine points from their remaining seven matches to secure the La Liga title. Zaragoza, who held Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw a fortnight ago, have not won in 14 matches and boast a similarly poor record against the league leaders – their last win against Barça came way back in 2007 when Diego Milito’s 57th minute goal was enough to consign the Blaugrana to a surprise defeat. Will Barcelona be able to extend their unbeaten run to eight matches, or will Zaragoza take an unlikely step towards survival?
Perhaps with Bayern Munich in mind, Tito Vilanova has opted to leave a plethora of key players behind for tomorrow’s relatively short trip to Zaragoza. Lionel Messi may have returned on Wednesday night to inspire the Blaugrana to another Champions League remuntada, but the Argentine was far from 100% and misses tomorrow’s match as a result. Sergio Busquets is sidelined with a groin problem – presumably as a precaution ahead of that difficult tie with Bayern Munich – Jose Manuel Pinto is suffering from back pain, while both Andrés Iniesta and Jordi Alba are simply being rested. Therefore, in order to compensate for a lengthy list of absentees, Tito has called upon Oier Olazabal and Sergi Roberto, neither of whom have yet made a La Liga appearance under Vilanova.
A week ago, an injury to Pinto could have been problematic for Barcelona, but fortunately that’s no longer the case, as Victor Valdés returns after serving a four-match suspension. The Catalan picked up the ban in the aftermath of Barça’s 2-1 El Clasico defeat against Real Madrid and while Pinto has proved himself to be a more than capable deputy, it’s nice to say that we’ll have our first-choice goalkeeper between the sticks tomorrow.
Moving onto the defense, just who will start at centre-half? Gerard Piqué is usually a starter, but in his pre-match press conference Jordi Roura hinted that the Catalan needs a rest. It might require a little bit of a reshuffle from Tito, but it’s possible that Piqué will be able to sit out tomorrow’s match. Marc Bartra is pretty much certain to start and the youngster can play the full 90 minutes, while the other centre-back spot can be filled by either Adriano, or Eric Abidal – perhaps a combination of the two. Abidal only made his triumphant return from a liver transplant in last week’s Manita victory over Mallorca, so it’s unlikely that the Frenchman will be able to start, but on the other hand, this is a unique situation – who really knows what to expect from Abidal?
After all, when the Frenchman made his first comeback in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League against Real Madrid, I would have never anticipated that he would not only start in the final, but complete the full 90 minutes against Manchester United. If he’s ready, and if he’s confident in his own abilities, what’s really stopping Abidal from starting tomorrow and playing 45 minutes?
Martin Montoya is likely to start at left-back, although he could face competition from Adriano – provided that Alex Song, Piqué or Abidal are starting alongside Bartra at centre-back. I must admit that I’m a little surprised that Jordi Alba was left out of the squad; he’s started just two of Barcelona’s last six league matches, while Alves has played over an hour in each of Barcelona’s last seven La Liga matches. If anyone was going to rest, I would have thought it would have been Alves, but as long as neither Alves nor Alba are injured prior to the match against Bayern then I don’t suppose it really matters.
With Sergio Busquets missing out, logic suggests that Alex Song will fill in at pivote, meaning that Jonathan dos Santos will have to settle for a place on the bench. Song has proved himself to be a capable back-up to Busquets, although is that enough to justify his €19 million price-tag? And what exactly does Song provide as a back-up that JDS doesn’t? Against Mallorca last week, Song received the ball 122 times, and attempted 116 passes with a 95% completion rate. JDS received the ball 47 times and attempted 44 passes with a 98% completion rate. Both players did their job beautifully – recycling possession, ensuring that the tempo never dropped in midfield. But could anyone ascertain why Song cost €19 million and why JDS has seen just 169 minutes of game-time all season? If I were Tito, I would start Song at centre-back – we need to find out if he’s ever going to be able to command a starting position and let’s face it, centre-back is the only option in that respect – and start JDS at pivote. If Alex Song is merely a back-up for Busquets then we might as well find out whether his job could be performed by a cheaper alternative.
Xavi Hernández and Thiago Alcântara should start in the two remaining midfield roles, with Sergi Roberto available to replace Xavi in the second-half (provided that the match goes as planned). Cesc Fàbregas could start in midfield, but with Messi sidelined, Fàbregas will almost certainly be required in attack. Alexis Sánchez deserves another chance to shine after his brace against Mallorca, and Cristian Tello was also impressive in that match. With Gerard Deulofeu starting for Eusebio’s B team, Tello "only" has David Villa and Pedro to contend with, and of those two, I’d imagine that only El Guaje is likely to rival Tello for a starting berth on the left-hand side of attack.
Manolo Jimenez knows that his side need to turn around their fortunes if they are to avoid relegation this season, and in spite of Barcelona’s long list of absentees, Jimenez acknowledges that tomorrow’s match will still be "very difficult" for Zaragoza. With five former Barça starlets in their eighteen-man squad (Victor Rodriguez, Paco Montañes, Edu Oriol, Rodri and Ruben Rochina), there is a little added incentive for the Zaragoza camp tomorrow, even if they aren’t expected to win a share of the points.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Real Zaragoza – 17th November 2012 – La Liga
Alex Song helped himself to his first goal in Barcelona colours following his big-money move from Arsenal, as a brace from Lionel Messi helped the Blaugrana secure their 11th victory of the La Liga season.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Bartra, Adriano, Montoya; Song, Xavi, Thiago; Sánchez, Fàbregas, Villa
Zaragoza (4-2-3-1): Roberto; Sapunaru, Alvaro, Loovens, Paredes; Movilla, Apoño; Montañes, Oriol, Victor; Postiga
Even with half their squad missing out for one reason or another, Barcelona should still have enough to see off the threat of Zaragoza. I’m going for a 4-1 win for the Blaugrana.