FC Barcelona return to La Liga action tomorrow, as they prepare to travel to the capital to take on Rayo Vallecano at Vallecas. Last season’s over-achievers have experienced a tough start to the new campaign, slumping to successive 5-0 defeats away from the comforts of home – and have hardly set the world alight in front of their own fans either, defeating Elche 3-0 was a good achievement but it was over-shadowed by a humiliating 2-1 defeat against Levante.
That’s the same Levante that lost 7-0 on their travels at the Camp Nou.
As a result, it’s only natural to expect that Barcelona will coast to victory tomorrow – they beat Levante with ease, who in turn beat Rayo in their own back-yard. But is it really going to be that simple? Will the league’s best offense wreak havoc against the league’s worst defense?
Sergio Busquets has been left out of tomorrow’s travelling squad as Gerardo Martino keeps one eye on the Blaugrana’s hectic schedule, which sees them host Real Sociedad on Tuesday evening. The UEFA Champions League qualifiers crashed to a tough loss in their group stage opener against Shakhtar Donetsk and face a difficult match tomorrow against Sevilla; ideally by the time they travel to Catalunya, they’ll be too fatigued to compete to the best of their ability – while Martino’s rotation policy keeps Barça fresh.
Moving onto tomorrow’s actual line-up, Victor Valdés will start in goal looking to build upon his exceptional clean-sheet against AFC Ajax. The Catalan shot-stopper had to be at his best to keep the Dutch champions at bay, and his penalty save to preserve the clean-sheet was right out of the top-drawer. With a similar performance tomorrow, Valdés could claim his fifth shout-out of the season; no wonder so many Culés are desperate to convince him to stay.
Martin Montoya might start his first game of the season at right-back (or at left-back) with a Brazilian full-back certain to start on the other flank. In fact, both Dani Alves and Adriano could retain their places from Wednesday – just as Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano are expected to continue in the heart of defense.
In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Alex Song is expected to start at pivote – even if my vote would go to Jonathan dos Santos. After all, if Song is contemplating an exit, why should we keep him in the squad? Why not use the cheaper, younger and perhaps more talented alternative?
Especially if the veteran midfield maestro, Xavi Hernández is tipped to return to the starting line-up with his usual partner-in-crime Andrés Iniesta returning to form. Dos Santos would be under minimal pressure, able to focus on his game and demonstrate whether or not he deserves a place in this squad.
Lionel Messi will start in attack, hoping to extend his lead in the Pichichi after his midweek hat-trick against Ajax put Messi one (or three) steps closer to the all-time UEFA Champions League scoring record. It’s incredible to believe that at just 26, Messi could become the all-time leading scorer in both the UCL and La Liga this season. The guy is simply super-human – and somehow our latest signing Neymar is almost keeping up with him. Perhaps not in terms of goals, but certainly in the level of his performances. He’s easily ahead of both Alexis Sánchez and Pedro in the pecking order; that’s after less than ten appearances for the club. Imagine what he might achieve after 100...
Uruguayan forward Seba Fernandez trained away from his colleagues today while former-Barça youngster Iago Falque continued his recovery programme, also away from the squad. However, Guinean winger Lass Bangoura returned to full training alongside Mexican forward Nery Castillo. Paco Jemez insists that his side will try and go "toe-to-toe" with Barcelona, but doesn’t announce his squad until tomorrow morning.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Rayo Vallecano – 17th March 2013 – La Liga
David Villa and Lionel Messi combined to deadly effect, assisting each other’s goals as Rayo couldn’t cope with Barcelona’s overwhelming offensive strength.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano; Song, Xavi, Fàbregas; Alexis, Messi, Neymar
Rayo (4-2-3-1): Ruben; Tito, Galvez, Galeano, Martinez; Trashorras, Saul; Lass, Bueno, Carlos; Larrivey
Barcelona should cruise to victory – but playing at the Vallecas is no easy task. Still, I’ll go for a comfortable 3-1 away win.