FC Barcelona will be hoping to temporarily move three points clear at the top of La Liga tomorrow when they travel to Valencia to take on Levante UD at Estadi Ciutat de Valencia. After suffering a humbling 7-0 defeat on their trip to the Camp Nou on the opening day of the 2013-2014 season, Levante are unlikely to be looking forward to hosting the reigning champions, especially given the dazzling form of Barcelona’s returning superstar, Lionel Messi.
Back after an extended spell on the sidelines, Messi has struck four goals in less than three hours of action including a brace in his first full 90 minutes against Getafe on Thursday. While Brazilian forward Neymar was an early casualty in that Copa del Rey Round of 16 second-leg, Barcelona still have a wealth of options in attack; certainly Levante need a miracle if they wish to keep their fourth successive clean sheet.
But that doesn’t mean to say that they won’t make life difficult for the Blaugrana. Who can forget how Real Madrid required two injury-time goals to secure the three points in their showdown with Joaquin Caparros’ side? On their night, Levante are notoriously difficult to defeat – can they upset the odds to claim a share of the spoils against the league leaders, or will Barcelona make it nine wins out of their last ten matches with another victory?
Dani Alves drops out of the squad as he serves a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation, and of course Neymar will also miss tomorrow’s trip with an ankle injury that’s set to rule him out of action for the next three to four weeks. Andrés Iniesta is rested as he continues to recover from a heavy knock sustained in that intense battle with Atletico Madrid, which, coupled with the continued absences of Jonathan dos Santos, Ibrahim Afellay, Isaac Cuenca and Oier Olazábal ensures that there is space in the 18-man squad for Cameroonian prodigy, Jean-Marie Dongou.
Victor Valdés will start in goal hoping to extend Barcelona’s run of successive clean sheets to five matches – a run that certainly goes against the popular opinion that Barça still need a new starting central defender. Of course, there are still moments of madness at the back, but the improved Victor Valdés has come to the rescue on countless occasions – a common theme from Barcelona’s best seasons. He’s unlikely to be worked too hard tomorrow, but it’s important that he keeps his focus (just as he has for the season so far) to keep Levante at bay on the rare occasions they do venture forward.
Speaking of the defense, Gerard Piqué, Martin Montoya, Jordi Alba and Javier Mascherano will probably start tomorrow; the only question is whether Marc Bartra retains his place in the heart of defense ahead of Mascherano, but after the Argentine’s superb performance against Atleti, the chances are looking slim. At his best, Mascherano is a colossus who can not only shut down opposing forwards (isn’t that right Diego Costa?), but who can perfectly complement an in-form Gerard Piqué. We’ve all heard of a little and large partnership in attack but Mascherano and Piqué have proved it can apply at the other end too.
Sergio Busquets will start at pivote, with Xavi and Cesc Fàbregas likely to start ahead of him in midfield. Of course, Xavi made his 700th appearance for the club in midweek and will be hoping to cap off a memorable week by captaining his team to victory, while Cesc Fàbregas will be keen to demonstrate that he should remain in the team once Iniesta returns from his injury. With Messi in the line-up, Fàbregas will have to go toe-to-toe with either the regular captain Xavi, or the mercurial Iniesta for a starting berth; thankfully Martino’s proven adept at managing the star-studded squad, rotation-wise, decreasing the likelihood of another summer of bizarre exit rumours, like the whole Cesc to Manchester United saga we were subjected to this past year.
Messi should lead the attack, with Pedro and Alexis Sánchez both rested and likely to return to the starting line-up. After stepping up in Messi’s absence, the real test for both Pedro and Alexis is yet to come – can they still deliver with Messi on the field? If so, Barcelona will be a real force to be reckoned with – in all competitions. If not, well, maybe we’ll encounter some familiar problems as the season reaches its climax.
Levante enter tomorrow’s match without the services of joint top-scorer David Barral or his back-up, "Baba" Diawara who has grabbed three goals in 11 appearances this campaign. Given that Levante are hardly a free-scoring side at the best of times, it’s not great news for coach Joaquin Caparros. Not only does it weaken his side, but it also gives away their likely gameplan, which will probably have to be damage limitation. Pack the midfield, sit back and hope for the best. Barcelona will plan accordingly; expect them to find a solution.
FC Barcelona 7-0 Levante UD – 18th August 2013 – La Liga
Barcelona romped to a memorable 7-0 opening day victory courtesy of goals from Lionel Messi (2), Pedro Rodriguez (2), Dani Alves, Alexis Sánchez and Xavi.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Montoya, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Alexis
Levante (4-2-3-1): Navas; Lopez, Vyntra, Navarro, Juanfran; Diop, Simao; Xumetra, Ivanschitz, Garcia; El Zhar
Levante will put up a fight. Trouble is, they’re going head-to-head with a heavyweight in Lionel Messi who will probably score an early knockout. I’m going for a 4-0 win.
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