Following Real Madrid’s 4-3 win over Real Valladolid at the Santiago Bernabeu, FC Barcelona now know that they cannot secure the La Liga title tomorrow, regardless of their result against Real Betis. Provided that the Blaugrana bounce back from Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat against Bayern Munich with a win at the Camp Nou, Barça could secure the title next weekend when they travel to Madrid to face off against Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon. However, three points are far from secured; Real Betis have been in excellent form this season and are just four points away from sixth-place Malaga, which would earn Los Beticos a place in next season’s UEFA Europa League. They enter tomorrow’s match at the Camp Nou with one of the best away records in the league, and with Ruben Castro in attack, Pepe Mel’s side may be confident of securing at least a share of the points.
As reported earlier today in the news, Victor Valdés misses tomorrow’s clash with a recurrence of a foot injury that kept him out of Catalunya’s January friendly with Nigeria. At the moment, Valdés is not expected to miss a great deal of time, and should recover in time to reclaim his place between the sticks when Barcelona travels to Madrid next weekend, where they will face Diego Simeone’s Atletico at the Vicente Calderon. Pedro is also expected to miss the match tomorrow evening through illness but there is some good news for Tito Vilanova as Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Eric Abidal have all returned to training after sitting out Barça’s heavy 3-0 defeat against Bayern Munich. In order to make up the numbers, Oier Olazabal and Gerard Deulofeu missed tonight’s 2-2 draw between Barcelona B and Lugo, although neither Deulofeu nor Oier are expected to start.
With Valdés missing out, Jose Manuel Pinto will make his 14th appearance of the season – and his 145th overall appearance in La Liga. Rather ironically, Pinto will be squaring off against the very team that handed him his first ever appearance in La Liga; while he never got a chance to establish himself for the Andalusians, Pinto spent the early years of his career at Real Betis, where he played in the B team alongside future stars such as Capi, Juanito and Diego Tristan. Will Pinto be able to celebrate his start with a clean sheet against his former employers? It’d certainly make a pleasant change from the previous few games...
Dani Alves should start tomorrow evening at right-back, on the eve of his 30th birthday. After the defeat against Bayern, there have been yet more rumours linking Dani with a move away from the Camp Nou, but after five glorious years at the club, I don’t think Barça would be the same without Alves on the right-hand side of defense. Regardless of recent results, Alves is still amongst the best in world in his position – and with Barcelona stepping up their chase for Neymar, not to mention reportedly showing an interest in Thiago Silva, it seems a little odd that the Blaugrana would be willing to part with their long-serving Brazilian full-back at this particular point in time.
Jordi Alba is available to start on the opposite flank following his one-match UEFA Champions League suspension which means that, rather surprisingly, Alba has accumulated the same number of yellow cards in nine Champions League appearances for the club as he has in 24 La Liga matches. Of course, one of those yellow cards in Europe was awarded for an extra-ordinary incident with Arjen Robben, but it’s still an issue that could be a concern for the club headed into next season.
Moving onto the centre of defense, Marc Bartra should start alongside Gerard Piqué for the second match in succession, although if Tito Vilanova’s pre-match press conference comments were anything to go by, then Gerard Piqué’s place may not be as secure as first thought. Following the second-leg defeat to Bayern Munich, in which Piqué scored an unfortunate own-goal, the defender acknowledged that the team needs some changes – a sentiment echoed by just about every single Barcelona fan on the planet. However, when pressed on this issue today, Tito responded to Piqué, noting that "that player doesn’t expect to be among the changes". It was a clear dig at Piqué, who has been the subject of a lot of criticism for the past couple of years, and whether Tito was serious or not, it was a foolish comment to make.
After all, Piqué was right – or at least, everyone agrees with him anyway – and whether you like him or loathe him, Piqué’s place in the starting XI is virtually guaranteed as well. His comments, in the immediate aftermath of a tough defeat which Piqué (in reference to the second-half) described as "the worst 45 minutes of his professional career" were likely to be a little rash, and upon reflection, he may or may not regret the wording of that particular statement. In other words, I think we can forgive Piqué for being a little emotional – but we can’t really say the same about Tito. He has had a few days to reflect on that defeat, and indeed talk to Piqué about his comments, yet he chooses to respond in public?
Worryingly, that’s probably what Jose Mourinho would have done...
After an impressive performance against Bayern Munich, Alex Song should start ahead of Sergio Busquets at pivote, if only because Busquets is unlikely to be 100% after his recent spell on the sidelines. And really, that’s the problem for Song. No matter how well he plays, it’s never going to be enough to displace Busquets, meaning that (barring a drastic change to the formation and/or a change of position for Busquets or Song) he is never going to command a starting place at the club. Yes, he’s a very good option to have on the bench, but no matter how you dress it up, he’s always going to be a role player – and Barcelona could probably find alternatives, who would work for a fraction of Song’s wages. Take Andreu Fontas for instance, he has featured as a holding midfielder on a few occasions for Real Mallorca this season, what’s stopping the Blaugrana from utilising players like Fontas instead of purchasing expensive alternatives from elsewhere?
Unfortunately Cesc Fàbregas will not be able to celebrate his 26th birthday with a start against Real Betis; the former Arsenal captain picked up his fifth yellow card of the season last weekend against Athletic Bilbao, and is therefore suspended for tomorrow’s match at the Camp Nou. Much like Alves, Piqué and just about every other player not named Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta or Xavi Hernández, there have been rumours that Barcelona are entertaining the idea of selling Cesc Fàbregas, which is probably as stupid as journalism gets.
Cesc Fàbregas has played in 44 of Barcelona’s 55 matches this season, and many of those 11 absences were a direct result of an injury. To put that into a little more context, Cesc Fàbregas has played in more matches this season than Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, and only one player (Lionel Messi) has featured in more matches than Cesc. Fàbregas is also the club’s third top-scorer, behind Messi and David Villa, and he has also provided the third highest number of assists, behind Andrés Iniesta and again, Messi.
If this outlines one thing, it’s that Cesc Fàbregas is an integral part of this Barcelona squad and that his contributions are a major reason why Barcelona will lift the La Liga title in the coming weeks.
So, with Fàbregas ruled out of tomorrow’s match, just who will start in midfield against Real Betis? Unfortunately, Sergi Roberto was not called up, and even injured himself in tonight’s draw with Lugo, so he isn’t going to feature tomorrow, leaving us with three options for two midfield spots. Thiago Alcântara will almost certainly fill one of those spots, leaving Xavi and Iniesta to fight it out for the remaining berth – and my money is on Andrés Iniesta. Jonathan dos Santos could, theoretically, contend for a starting place, but honestly, who expects JDS to ever get a chance?
That leaves us with the attack, and Lionel Messi is again expected to start the match on the bench meaning that David Villa could start in the centre of attack. However, Alexis Sánchez could also be in contention for that central role and indeed Tito may feel as though the in-form Chilean is the more "natural" replacement for Messi, especially with Fàbregas suspended. Provided Alexis does start in the centre, David Villa could start on the left, but I’d expect to see a start for Cristian Tello, while Gerard Deulofeu is arguably the best candidate for the empty space on right-wing, as long as Sánchez starts in the centre of attack.
With 18 goals in 29 appearances in this season’s Segunda Division, Deulofeu is the third top-scorer overall and is obviously leading scorer for Eusebio’s B team. However, Deulofeu hasn’t scored since the 8th March when he opened the scoring against Cordoba in a thrilling 4-3 victory for the mini-Blaugrana. Of course, Deulofeu isn’t even guaranteed a place in the starting XI tomorrow and is probably going to start on the bench, but it would be nice to see him given a real chance to demonstrate his potential – rather than a small run-out as a cameo in an easy victory.
Pepe Mel will be without a whole host of first-team players for tomorrow’s trip to the Camp Nou, as Paulao, Damien Perquis, Angel Lopez, Nacho, Nono, Jose Cañas and captain, Casto all miss out through either injury, or suspension. However, with Ruben Castro leading the line, Betis will be confident of their chances – after all, Castro has scored in his last three meetings with the Blaugrana (or four, if you include a match against Barcelona B).
Real Betis: LDWDLD
Real Betis 1-2 FC Barcelona – 9th December 2012 – La Liga
A first-half brace from Lionel Messi secured the three points for the Blaugrana, who failed to really kill off the game after Ruben Castro pulled a goal back for the hosts on 39 minutes.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Bartra, Alba; Song, Thiago, Iniesta; Sánchez, Villa, Tello
Real Betis (4-2-3-1): Adrian; Javi Chica, Amaya, Mario, Martinez; Beñat, Ruben Perez; Campbell, Molina, Juan Carlos; Castro
It’s a tough one to call; on one hand, Barcelona will be desperate to bounce back from Wednesday’s defeat, but will they be able to do so without a raft of key players? I’m going for a narrow 3-2 home win.