FC Barcelona and indeed La Liga returns from a brief international hiatus tomorrow, as the Blaugrana seek to extend their 100% record to four matches with a win over struggling Sevilla at the Camp Nou. A win would surely see Barça retain top spot in La Liga – provided that Atletico Madrid does not better Barcelona’s result (either points-wise, or by two clear goals). Both Villarreal and Real Madrid also stand a chance of leading La Liga; but their chances hinge on either a spectacular margin of victory, or a catastrophic collapse from their closest rivals.
While Sevilla lost a couple of star players in the summer transfer window – the most high-profile departures were that of Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas to Manchester City – it’s arguable that their most devastating loss will be that of young Frenchman Geoffrey Kondogbia. The highly-rated midfielder is tipped as a star of the future, and Sevilla will sorely miss the steel he provided their midfield, especially when his departure is coupled with the exit of tenacious midfield general Gary Medel, who famously butted heads (literally) with Cesc Fàbregas during a hotly-contested battle between the two sides last season.
Admittedly, there was something dramatic about Fàbregas’ reaction, and the game itself was an entertaining affair; but most Culés would settle for a dull victory after yet another international break.
Interestingly, Barcelona head coach Gerardo Martino has opted to continue his rotation policy – this time Pedro misses out on a place in the 20-man squad – as he no doubt prepares for the start of this season’s UEFA Champions League. However, before Martino can turn his attentions to his Champions League debut on Wednesday against AFC Ajax, the Argentine tactician must first maintain Barça’s perfect La Liga record.
As mentioned above, Pedro is the latest "big-name" to miss out on a place in Martino’s matchday squad, as he joins Oier Olazábal, Carles Puyol, Isaac Cuenca and Ibrahim Afellay in the stands. That quintet will be joined by an as yet unnamed duo – although the smart money is on some combination of Martin Montoya, Sergi Roberto and Jonathan dos Santos. It’s not that the young stars are "bad players" – far from it – it’s just that Martino hasn’t exactly displayed a willingness to include them in his star-studded squads as of late.
Who knows? Maybe that will all change – Dani Alves was forced to miss both of Brazil’s latest friendly matches through injury, so it’s possible that he will be dropped in favour of Martin Montoya. Possible, not probable.
In goal, Victor Valdés will be searching for his fourth clean sheet of the season – as his previous three (from five matches) evidently wasn’t enough to earn him a starting berth for the Spanish National Team ahead of media darling and Real Madrid benchwarmer, Iker Casillas. Of course, Saint Iker is still a fantastic goalkeeper – but this was a pretty huge snub from Del Bosque towards Valdés, who really earned his place in the squad on merit. Hopefully, Valdés will channel any disappointment he has about this international break into another top-class performance.
Similarly, one can hope that Dani Alves will be itching to get out on the field – against his former club no less – after a brief spell on the sidelines; injury made sure that he played no part in Brazil’s victories over Australia and Portugal after all. Watching his compatriots storm to two more impressive wins must have been pleasing, but tough to watch for Alves, who surely hoped to contribute himself. On the other hand, the injury has allowed Dani to "rest", which can only be seen as a positive.
Another former Sevilla star could be in line for a start – of course I’m referring to Adriano Correia, who has been one of the "stars" of the season so far. His game-winning goal against Malaga was a thing of beauty, and it’d be great to see Adriano back on the field – although it’s perhaps more likely that Adriano will start on the bench given that Jordi Alba sat out Spain’s 2-2 draw with Alexis Sánchez’ Chile on Tuesday.
In the centre of defense, neither Javier Mascherano nor Gerard Piqué travelled with their respective national teams, as both players served a one-match suspension. As a result, Piqué and Mascherano trained with the other remaining first-teamers this past week, and will surely be fit to start tomorrow.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets has returned to training after a thigh injury forced him out of Spain’s recent fixtures – which probably makes it 50-50 as to whether he will start tomorrow. On the one hand, he’s Busquets, and he exponentially improves the team whenever he takes to the field, but on the other, he’s Busquets, and Barça cannot afford to see him sidelined again. If there’s no chance of a recurrence, expect to see him on the field. If there’s even a minute chance, I’d keep him on the bench and start Alex Song.
Xavi was rested for Barça’s last La Liga fixture – a 3-2 win over Valencia (is it any real surprise Barcelona struggled to close out the game/exert total control without their midfield maestro in the squad?) but he also (frustratingly) played 135 minutes for Spain last week. Does that mean he’ll miss out again? At this point, it’s probably anyone’s guess – and my instincts are that Xavi will pair up with Cesc Fàbregas tomorrow, leaving Andrés Iniesta to recover/rest on the bench. Heaven knows he needs it if recent performances are anything to go by.
Moving onto the attack, Lionel Messi is almost certain to start – Martino may be rotating some members of his squad, but one gets the feeling that Messi is still going to be treated differently – even if he did travel an awful lot over the international break and presumably returned later than some of his colleagues. However, don’t be surprised if Messi gets substituted if Barça are winning in the second-half. With Pedro out of the equation, Alexis Sánchez should reclaim his spot on the right-wing – leaving Neymar and Cristian Tello to battle it out for the final spot in the starting XI. I expect to see Neymar, but have a feeling we might see Tello instead.
Despite the departures of Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas, Sevilla were thought to have cleverly reinvested in their playing squad. Carlos Bacca, Kevin Gameiro, Nicolas Pareja, Vicente Iborra – that’s just a few of Sevilla’s summer signings – and maybe that’s where they went wrong. In the long-run, each and every one of their signings could come good, but for now, they look like a collection of individuals rather than a team.
That lack of chemistry has cost them dear thus far; with two points from their opening three matches, Sevilla are languishing in 16th place and could drop into the bottom three if results go against them this weekend. Drawing away with Levante in the second match of the season is a real stand-out result – we witnessed first-hand just how poor Levante looked, yet Sevilla were powerless against them. A repeat of that dire away performance and Barcelona will surely emerge victorious.
FC Barcelona 2-1 Sevilla FC – 23rd February 2013 – La Liga
For the second time this season, FC Barcelona had to work for the three points, coming from behind to secure a 2-1 victory at the Camp Nou after Alberto Botia’s 42nd minute goal had given the visitors a shock lead.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Song, Xavi, Fàbregas; Sánchez, Messi, Tello
Sevilla (4-3-2-1): Beto; Coke, Fazio, Cala, Navarro; Rakitic, Iborra, Mbia; Perotti, Marin; Gameiro
Sevilla are always a tough opponent, and tomorrow will be no exception. I expect the defense to be in top-form after a rare break – but the offense may struggle if they’re as fatigued as I expect. I’m going for a 2-0 home win.
More from Barca Blaugranes:
- FC Barcelona News: 13 September 2013; 20 Player Squad for Sevilla Game Announced, Carles Puyol Joins Group in Training
- Real Madrid and Barcelona: An "El Clasico" Season Preview
- FC Barcelona News: 12 September 2013; Barça Internationals Return to Training
- FC Barcelona News: 11 September 2013; Lionel Messi, Neymar Shine on International Stage, Spain Draw With Chile
- FC Barcelona News: 10 September 2013; Dani Alves Resumes Training, Martin Montoya Considering his Future