FC Barcelona prepare to take on Malaga tomorrow in what promises to be an exhilarating end to another fantastic season in La Liga. While the Blaugrana’s fate has long since been decided, Barcelona still have something to play for – pride, and the chance to reach 100 points for the first time in their history. On the other hand, Malaga are playing for sixth place (although European qualification in general has already been secured – even if Malaga won’t discover if they have successfully overturned a UEFA-imposed ban until later on this summer) and for their departing manager, Manuel Pellegrini, who is headed for Manchester City and the English Premier League. Will Barcelona and Tito Vilanova be able to secure their place in history with a win tomorrow, or will Pellegrini wrap up his reign at Malaga with a victory at the Camp Nou?
Dani Alves is away representing Brazil on international duty (where he will play on Sunday, presumably alongside Neymar, against England) – but Barcelona will be able to count on the likes of Thiago, Martin Montoya, Cristian Tello and Marc Bartra, who have temporarily returned from international duty to play tomorrow’s match for the Blaugrana. Lionel Messi (despite rumours to the contrary) has not received the medical green light and will therefore not feature, and the same applies to Carles Puyol who reaffirmed his loyalty to the club in a press conference today. However, Eric Abidal has been training with the group and will play at least a few minutes in what will be his final match for the team.
Victor Valdés will start in goal, and in a press conference today, Valdés didn’t rule out the possibility of continuing in goal for Barça next season. His contract of course runs until 2014, but many figured that Barcelona will look to sell this summer – but with the club the way it is, who knows what might happen? Like it or not, Valdés is probably still the best keeper for the club, and maybe we would be foolish to lose that ideal keeper a season early, just to raise some money.
With Dani Alves away, I would expect Adriano to start at right-back, even if I would much prefer Martin Montoya to get the start. The same applies at centre-half; I expect to see Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano start together again, even if I would prefer to see Marc Bartra given some minutes. That being said, I can see the allure of the 100 point season, and being brutally honest, we probably stand a better chance of reaching that goal with Marc Bartra sitting on the bench. Thankfully, Jordi Alba is the only candidate for the left-back berth – at least that’s one selection Tito can make without being criticised.
Sergio Busquets will start at pivote – Alex Song was sent off in midweek, and while he will not be suspended, I doubt that the Blaugrana will be keen to "reward" his late skirmish with Cristian Stuani with a start against Malaga – and as Thiago is available, I imagine the club will be keen to start the talented midfielder in a bid to remind him of his importance. It could be too little too late, but it’s worth a try at least. And alongside Thiago, I expect to see Andrés Iniesta who missed the midweek Copa Catalunya match with Espanyol – presumably to rest up ahead of this tie with Malaga.
With Lionel Messi still out, Cesc Fàbregas will start in the centre of the Barça attack, and I think that Cesc was the stand-out in that Copa Catalunya win. His contributions as a substitute caused Kiko Casilla a lot of problems, and eventually led to a deserved equaliser – if only he could do the same in a La Liga fixture. Ideally, Pedro and Alexis Sánchez could start in attack together with Cesc, but I suspect we’ll only see one of the two (at least, from the start anyway), with the other place between Cristian Tello and David Villa. As this could be his last match for the club, I’d go for El Guaje.
Just as Barcelona are able to count on Thiago, Montoya et al, Malaga are able to call up Isco and Ignacio Camacho – although Martin Demichelis, Carlos Kameni, Duda and Manuel Iturra (who scored against Barça in the Copa del Rey earlier this year) are all absent through injury.
Malaga CF 2-4 FC Barcelona – 24th January 2013 – Copa del Rey
Barcelona secured their place in the Copa del Rey semi-finals with a 4-2 win at La Rosaleda as goals from Pedro, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi secured a 6-4 aggregate victory over the plucky hosts.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Adriano, Mascherano, Piqué, Alba; Busquets, Thiago, Iniesta; Pedro, Cesc, Villa
Malaga (4-2-3-1): Willy; Gamez, Lugano, Weligton, Eliseu; Camacho, Portillo; Joaquin, Isco, Baptista; Santa Cruz
Barcelona have a points record to play for, and are pretty much unbeatable at the Camp Nou – which is bad news for Manuel Pellegrini. I’m going for a completely ridiculous, and entirely optimistic 4-1 home win.